by Marion Nestle

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Mar 28 2013

Yes, dogs can eat carbohydrates, and here’s why

When Mal Nesheim and I were writing our book about the pet food industry, Feed Your Pet Right, we were constantly challenged to defend our contention that dogs can eat pretty much anything, including commercial food products made with grains.

Our reasoning: dogs are not wolves.  They evolved to take full advantage of the leftovers from human food consumption.

Now a study published in Nature Magazine, “The genomic signature of dog domestication reveals adaptation to a starch-rich diet,” explains how this happened. 

The investigators sequenced the entire genomes of dogs and wolves.  They identified 3.8 million genetic variants, and used them to identify 36 genomic regions that appeared related to dog domestication.  Many of these gene regions appear to be associated with the behavioral changes needed to domesticate wolves.  

Ten of the genes turned out to have roles in starch digestion; three of these genes promote digestion.

The investigators identified mutations in key wolf genes that allowed this to happen.  The study provides evidence that dogs “thrive on a diet rich in starch, relative to the carnivorous diet of wolves.”  

This, they say, constitutes a crucial step in the early domestication of dogs.

In conclusion, we have presented evidence that dog domestication was accompanied by selection at three genes with key roles in starch digestion: AMY2BMGAM and SGLT1. Our results show that adaptations that allowed the early ancestors of modern dogs to thrive on a diet rich in starch, relative to the carnivorous diet of wolves, constituted a crucial step in early dog domestication…In light of previous results describing the timing and location of dog domestication, our findings may suggest that the development of agriculture catalysed the domestication of dogs.

 If your dog is domesticated, it will love those carbs just as you do.  But keep it away from the pizza and cookies.  We seem to have co-evolved to put on the pounds together too.

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Jan 29 2013

Brominated Vegetable Oil: R.I.P. (let’s hope)

I’m teaching a course on food advocacy this semester at NYU and am always looking for instructive examples.  Here’s a good one.

PepsiCo announced that it would remove Brominated Vegetable Oil (BVO) from Gatorade and replace it with something less potentially harmful.

BVO, a flame retardant, keeps keep flavor oils in suspension and provides a cloudy appearance in soft drinks.

According to the account in the New York Times, PepsiCo’s action followed soon after a 15-year-old activist in Mississippi, Sarah Kavanagh, filed a petition on Change.org to remove BVO.

The petition attracted more than 200,000 signatures, and this week, Ms. Kavanagh was in New York City to tape a segment for “The Dr. Oz Show.” She visited The New York Times on Wednesday and while there said, “I just don’t understand why they can’t use something else instead of B.V.O.”

…a spokesman for PepsiCo…said in an e-mail, “We appreciate Sarah as a fan of Gatorade, and her concern has been heard.”

…”Kudos to PepsiCo for doing the responsible thing on its own and not waiting for the F.D.A. to force it to,” said Michael Jacobson, executive director of the Center for Science in the Public Interest [CSPI].

Mr. Jacobson has championed the removal of brominated vegetable oil from foods and beverages for the last several decades, but the F.D.A. has left it in a sort of limbo, citing budgetary constraints that it says keep it from going through the process needed to formally ban the chemical or declare it safe once and for all.

I love Ms. Kavanagh’s response to BVO’s removal, as quoted in Beverage Daily:

I thought I might get a lot of support because no-one wants to gulp down flame retardant, especially from a drink they associate with being healthy. But with Gatorade being as big as they are, sometimes it was hard to know if we’d ever win. This is so, so awesome.

A teenager with social media skills accomplished what CSPI has been trying to do for decades. 

The FDA removed BVO from its list of ingredients Generally Recognized As Safe in 1970, but in 1977 allowed companies to use it on an “interim” basis.  It says getting rid of it is “not a priority.”

Animal studies show it causes lesions in the liver and impairs growth and behavior.   The medical literature contains occasional case reports of bromine toxicity in individuals who abuse brominated cola drinks.

Getting rid of it is good news.

But, as CSPI’s Michael Jacobson points out:

Gatorade without BVO is nutritionally no better than with it.  A typical 20oz (591ml) bottle has 130 calories, all from its 34 g of refined sugars.

Sep 25 2012

HFCS vs. Sugar, and vice versa: eat less of both!

I’ve been trying to keep track of the legal dispute between the Corn Refiners (representing manufacturers of high fructose corn syrup—HFCS) and the Sugar Association, which represents growers of sugar beets and cane (sucrose).

Recall: HFCS is glucose and fructose separated, whereas sucrose is glucose and fructose stuck together.  Because they are biochemically pretty much the same (enzymes that split sucrose act quickly), they have the same effects in the body.

So the dispute is about market share, not science.

First, the Corn Refiners tried to change the name of HFCS to “corn sugar.”  The FDA turned this down (as well it should).

Then, the Sugar makers sued the Corn Refiners, claiming that the Corn Refiners’ public education marketing campaign was false and misleading because it promoted HFCS as “natural” (It’s not, in my opinion) and nutritionally and metabolically equivalent to other forms of sugar (which it is).

Then, the Corn Refiners countersued on the basis that Sugar lobbying groups are tricking the public into believing that sucrose is healthier than HFCS (it’s not) and trying to create a “health halo” for sucrose (absurd).

As Food Navigator puts it, the two associations are “trading insults.”

While all this is going on, a group called Citizens for Health has filed a petition with FDA to put the concentration of fructose in HFCS on package labels.  HFCS is usually 42% or 55% fructose (it is 50% in sucrose).  These forms of HFCS are considered by FDA to be generally recognized as safe (GRAS).

The petition argues that some products have more fructose—65% or 90%—and should say so.

All sugars should be consumed in small quantities, but fructose especially so.

The Corn Refiners say that Citizens for Health, which sponsors a website called foodidentitytheft.com, is funded by the Sugar Association.

Also in the meantime, a new study says HFCS has nothing whatsoever to do with obesityGuess who sponsored the study.

Advice for today: eat less sugar(s), meaning sucrose, glucose, fructose, table sugar, HFCS, corn sugar, and all the other euphemisms food companies use to deflect attention from how much their products contain.

Aug 30 2012

Does starvation increase longevity? Not in monkeys.

The New York Times front page today has a report of a long-term study at NIH of severe calorie restriction in Rhesus monkeys.  It found that calorie restriction did not extend the monkeys’ lifespan.

I’m not at all surprised.  My co-author and I reviewed the literature on calorie restriction for a chapter in our book, Why Calories Count.

The new study makes news because it contradicts a study done in Wisconsin showing that severe calorie restriction extends life.  Severe means 25% to 30% fewer calories per day that are needed to maintain normal body weight.  I’d call this a starvation diet.

An editorial accompanying the report of the study in Nature attributes the difference between the results of this NIH trial and the Wisconsin study to a difference in dietary composition, suggesting that calories differ in their effects.

Not necessarily.  The Wisconsin study allowed the control monkeys to eat a lot of junk food and they were fatter than normal.  The NIH study restricted calorie intake in its control monkeys so they maintained normal weight and were healthier.  This is the simplest explanation of the difference.

Studies in rats, mice, and many other animals show that calorie restriction extends life.

But what about primates?

Starvation can hardly be good for health.  It causes weight loss, of course, but also a host of physiological and psychological problems.  These were extensively documented in humans during World War II in Ancel Keys’ Starvation studies.

The relationship between BMI and human longevity has been examined in several recent studies, all of which show similar results: Longevity is best associated with BMIs in the range considered normal or slightly overweight.  Above that range—but also below it—mortality increases.  

Being underweight is associated with higher mortality.

A Canadian study provides this example:

And one from the National Cancer Institute provides another:

The bottom line?  Eat a healthy diet and balance calories to maintain a healthy weight within that range.

Jul 24 2012

The Bloomberg soda initiative: soda companies fight back, overtly and covertly

The hearing on Bloomberg’s soda volume limit takes place today.  I’m traveling and sorry to miss it (I filed comments).

I shouldn’t be surprised but I am stunned by the intensity and depth of soda industry pushback on this, most of it going on and on about the virtues of personal choice, as if container size has nothing to do with the amount people eat.  It does (see below).

In addition to what reporters have been reporting, here’s what I’ve seen personally:

  • A phony “grassroots”petition campaign paid for by the soda industry with campaigners paid $30 per hour to collect signatures
  • A mailing to my home asking me to protest
  • Handout cards
  • Subway posters
  • Tee shirts
  • And highly visible ads on trucks.

And then there’s yesterday’s op-ed in the Wall Street Journal from Seth Goldman, the “TEA-EO” of Honest Tea:

I challenge the mayor and the New York City Board of Health to seriously consider the impediments that entrepreneurs already face in our efforts to offer lower-calorie drinks. Starting a business and building a challenger brand with modest resources is already a daunting task. The proposed ban would create additional barriers to beverage innovation.

Only one thing wrong with this.  Mr. Goldman must have forgotten to mention that since March 2011, Honest Tea has been a wholly owned subsidiary of Coca-Cola.

Yes, I know the petition has gathered 75,000 signatures or so.  The campaigners and signers should all know better.  See this, for example:

Feb 2 2012

Are sugars toxic? Should they be regulated?

Nature, the prestigious science magazine from Great Britain, has just published a commentary with a provocative title–The toxic truth about sugar—and an even more provocative subtitle: Added sweeteners pose dangers to health that justify controlling them like alcohol.

The authors, Robert Lustig, Laura Schmidt and Claire Brindis, are researchers at the University of California medical center in San Francisco (UCSF).

They argue that although tobacco, alcohol and diet are critically important behavioral risk factors in chronic disease, only two of them—tobacco and alcohol—are regulated by governments to protect public health.

Now, they say, it’s time to regulate sugar.  By sugar, they mean sugars plural: sucrose as well as high fructose corn syrup (HFCS).  Both are about half fructose.

Their rationale?

  • Consumption of sugars has tripled over the last 50 years.
  • Many people consume as much as 500 calories a day from sugars (average per capita availability in the U.S. is about 400 calories a day)
  • High intake of fructose-containing sugars induce metabolic syndrome (high blood pressure, insulin resistance), diabetes, and liver damage.
  • Sugars have the potential for abuse.
  • Sugars have negative effects on society (mediated via obesity).
  • Too much of a good thing can be toxic.

Therefore, they argue, societies should intervene and consider the kinds of policies that have proven effective for control of tobacco and alcohol:

  • Taxes
  • Distribution controls
  • Age limits
  • Bans from schools
  • Licensing requirements
  • Zoning ordinances
  • Bans on TV commercials
  • Labeling added sugars
  • Removal of fructose from GRAS status

In a statement that greatly underestimates the situation, they say:

We recognize that societal interven­tion to reduce the supply and demand for sugar faces an uphill political battle against a powerful sugar lobby, and will require active engagement from all stakeholders.

But, they conclude:

These simple measures — which have all been on the battleground of American politics — are now taken for granted as essential tools for our public health and well-being. It’s time to turn our attention to sugar.

What is one to make of this?  Sugar is a delight, nobody is worried about the fructose in fruit or carrots, and diets can be plenty healthy with a little sugar sprinkled here and there.

The issue is quantity.  Sugars are not a problem, or not nearly as much of a problem, for people who balance calorie intake with expenditure.

Scientists can argue endlessly about whether obesity is a cause or an effect of metabolic dysfunction, but most people would be healthier if they ate less sugar.

The bottom line?  As Corinna Hawkes, the author of numerous reports on worldwide food marketing, wrote me this morning, “there are plenty of reasons for people to consume less sugar without having to worry about whether it’s toxic or not!”

Nov 16 2011

Why Calories Count: From Science to Politics

Order from your local independent bookstore or University of California Press or Barnes and Noble or Amazon.com.

Reviews, interviews, and commentary on Why Calories Count

2014

July 26   Review in Science Magazine

2013

September  Review in Health Affairs 2012;31 (9):2150-2151.

September 7 Radio interview with Dr. Don

August 15  Review in Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung by Thomas Weber (in German)

August 1  Review in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition by Barbara Rolls

July 26  Interview with Tami O’Neill for EcoCentric blog

July 13  Interview with Donna Feldman on MyNetDiaryBlog

July 19   Interview about Why Calories Count with Nina Kahori Fallenbaum for Hyphen magazine: “Rice is Nice.”

June 6  KQED’s Forum (radio) Host: Spencer Michels

May 25 Video interview with Linda Watson on HuffPo.

May 21  Radio New Zealand

May 15 Radio interview with Susan Moran

May 14 TV Interview with Linda Watson on Cook for Good

May 9  Jenny Hutt radio

May 9  Candy Sagon on the AARP blog

May 4  Fort Worth Star-Telegram

May 2  Oprah.com

April 26 Review in Eat.Drink.Better

April 26  Susan Albers in the Huffington Post

April 24 Review on StarChildScience

April 20 Review in the Wall Street Journal

April 19  Interview with LifeScript

April 18 Review on The Black Sheep Dances.

April 17  The Page 99 Test and Campaign for the American Reader’s Page 99 of Why Calories Count.

April 16  A review in Serious Eats by Leah Douglas.

March 29: Times Higher Education (U.K.)

People should read this book. They should read it if they are obsessive weight-watchers or serial dieters, or just concerned about what their children eat. They should read it if they work in public health, the food industry, catering or education. And they should certainly read it if, like my colleague who reacted with horror to the title and the idea, they work to counter the “myth of obesity” and are supporters of the “health at any size” movement.

March 29: a blog from Finland (in Finnish)

March 28: Healthy Eating blog

March 26: Lisa Young’s portion teller blog

March 25: Miriam Morgan’s review in the San Francisco Chronicle

March 22: Eleanor West’s interview on Civil Eats.

March 21: Mark Bittman in the New York Times

March 20: Jane Brody in the New York Times

March 15: Nature magazine

Obesity has gone global — as has misinformation about nutrition and food. Nutrition scientists Marion Nestle and Malden Nesheim unscramble the confusion with a serving of science. They reveal how calories — those potent but ill-understood measures of heat energy — are really counted, why we need them, how we use them, how many we actually need and why it all sometimes goes so wrong. From ‘secret’ calories to food politics, malnourishment and calorie restriction for health, this is a feast for the mind.

February 1: The Scientist

Nutritional science guru Marion Nestle’s new book, Why Calories Count, seeks to crack open the inscrutable nature of the calorie. Think of the book, cowritten with Cornell University nutritionist and biochemist Malden Nesheim, as a diner’s elemental guide to eating. Nestle and Nesheim deconstruct the calorie—the bane of many a belly in the developed and developing worlds—to its barest components as a humble unit of work or heat before reassembling it and discussing its implications for disease, obesity, politics, and modern marketing.

From the strict chemical definition of a calorie to the 25-year quest by the Center for Science in the Public Interest to require nutritional labels, including calories, on alcoholic beverages, Why Calories Count weaves scientific and social tales into a rich portrait of the American diet and the laws that have shaped it.

By thoroughly burrowing into the meaning and impacts of calories, the authors intend to bestow a more relaxed yet active state of mind upon the reader. “Get organized. Eat less. Move more. Get political,” they suggest. Sounds like the most succinct diet book ever written.

Excerpts from other reviews

From Kirkus Reviews: A strong, rigorous overview of the calorie, its regulation and the politics behind food labeling and marketing.

From Library Journal (see the Barnes and Noble website): Neither a diet nor a weight-loss book, this scholarly, seriously researched work assists readers in evaluating diet claims, formulating strategies to lose, gain, or maintain weight, and learning how to make healthy food choices….and—what will probably be of most interest to the general reader—the role of big business in creating calorie-laden food and why it’s less politically controversial to recommend exercising than cutting back on calories.  

Summary

Calories—too few or too many—are the source of health problems affecting billions of people in today’s globalized world. Although calories are essential to human health and survival, they cannot be seen, smelled, or tasted. They are also hard to understand.

This book explains in clear and accessible language what calories are and how they work, both biologically and politically.   It takes readers through issues fundamental to understanding diet and food, weight gain, loss, and obesity, and sorts through the misinformation put forth by food manufacturers and diet program promoters.

Nestle and Nesheim explain the political stakes and show how federal and corporate policies have come together to create an “eat more” environment and give readers the information needed to interpret food labels, evaluate diet claims, and understand evidence as presented in popular media.

Their concluding advice: Get organized. Eat less. Eat better. Move more. Get political.

Blurbs for Why Calories Count:

“We need to understand what ‘empty calories’ are, so that we can feed our children food that is truly nourishing. On this topic, there is no better teacher than Marion Nestle, who writes with meticulousness, clarity and grace.”  —Alice Waters, author of The Art of Simple Food

“If you want to understand what’s wrong with our eating habits, you must understand the central role that calories play.  Nestle and Nesheim are two of the America’s finest nutritionists–and this book explains, clearly and succinctly, why calories count.  It is essential reading not only for people interested in food policy, but for everyone who wants to eat well and be well.” —Eric Schlosser, author of Fast Food Nation

“This superbly well-researched and scientifically sound book makes it clear how today’s food environment often overrides physiological regulatory controls of body weight. Why Calories Count is essential reading for anyone who wants to understand why so much about food choice lies in the hands of food marketers whose goal is to sell more products, not necessarily in the interests of public health.”  —Dr. David Kessler, author of The End of Overeating


“Thank god authorities like Nestle and Nesheim have teamed up to give us an epic view of a calorie: what it is, where it came from, what it means, how and why we count them. Thank god they’ve managed to decode nutritional science into a commonsense language we can all understand.  And thank god they’ve put calories in their place in a wider cultural and political context to help us think meaningfully about the food our lives depend upon.  I’m grateful.”  —Betty Fussell, author of Raising Steaks

“Calories. We all talk about them—many are even obsessed with them—but what do we really know about them? Not much. Marion Nestle and Malden Nesheim’s latest book changes all that, pulling back the curtain on calories and helping us understand them in a whole new light. You’ll never look at a 100-calorie pack of corporate cookies the same way again.” —Anna Lappé, author of Diet for a Hot Planet

 

Sep 1 2011

Obesity research and commentary: today’s roundup

My mailbox is overflowing with new reports and commentary about obesity.  Here are some examples:

State medical expenses: The journal, Obesity, has an analysis of the cost of obesity to states.  Obesity costs states an additional 7 to 11% in medical expenses. Between 22% (Virginia) and 55% (Rhode Island) of state costs of obesity are paid by taxpayers through Medicare and Medicaid.

Robert Wood Johnson Foundation series on preventing childhood obesity: 

From the Campaign to End Obesity:

Obesity Rates Projected to Soar, ABC News, 8.25.11Will half the U.S. population be obese by 2030? The current trajectory would see 65 million more obese adults, raising the national total to 164 million. Roughly one-third of the U.S. population is currently obese.

In U.S., Obesity Rates Remain Higher Than 20% in All States, Gallup, 8.25.11: Colorado continues to be the state with the lowest obesity rate in the country, at 20.1% in the first half of 2011. West Virginia has the highest obesity rate in January through June 2011, at 34.3%, which is also the highest Gallup has measured for any state since it began tracking obesity rates in 2008.

Reversing the obesity epidemic will take time, LA Times, 8.26.11The old rule that cutting out or burning 500 calories a day will result in a steady, 1-pound-per-week weight loss doesn’t reflect real people, researchers say. For the typical overweight adult, every 10-calorie-per-day reduction will result in the loss of about 1 pound over three years.

I’ve commented on some of these in previous posts.  If you find the avalanche of studies overwhelming, you are in good company.  I do too, but will summarize my take on the literature in my forthcoming book with Malden Nesheim, Why Calories Count: From Science to Politics, due out from University of California Press in March 2012.  Stay tuned.