Food Politics

by Marion Nestle
Feb 12 2008

In memorium: Earl Butz

Earl Butz, former Secretary of Agriculture in the Nixon administration, died last week at the age of 98. He had a long and varied career, but in the context of food systems he is famous for having revolutionized U.S. agricultural policy. Instead of paying farmers not to produce food, he encouraged farmers to produce as much food as possible. They did, and indeed produced so much corn that new uses had to be found for it. Voila! High fructose corn syrup! The movie, King Corn, includes an interview with Mr. Butz. He was proud of having so greatly increased U.S. food production. Indeed, the number of calories in the U.S. food supply increased from about 3,200 per day in the mid-1970s to the present 3,900 per day, with all the consequences that I discuss in Food Politics and in What to Eat. His passing marks the end of an era.

Feb 10 2008

The diet soda puzzle

Diet sodas, which are just water plus one or more artificial sweeteners, ought to save tons of calories and help people manage weight and metabolic imbalances, right? You might think so, but that’s not how the research is turning out. A big, complicated study of the effects of diet on “metabolic syndrome” (meaning multiple risk factors for heart disease, diabetes, etc) finds diet soda to be one of the factors associated with predisposition. OK. The study was based on food frequency questionnaires and other results are also hard to interpret but this isn’t the first study to find diet sodas coming out on the wrong side. The artificial sweeteners might be at fault but my guess is that diet sodas are a marker for some of the less healthful dietary practices. You know my rule from What to Eat: never eat anything with anything artificial in it.

Feb 10 2008

The pet food indictments

I haven’t been saying much about pet food, mainly because my forthcoming book about the recall and its aftermath, Pet Food Politics: Chihuahua in the Coal Mine, is in the works at University of California Press but won’t be out until September. Last week’s indictments of the heads of the Chinese companies that supposedly produced and shipped the contaminated wheat gluten (actually wheat flour laced with melamine), and the American company that imported it, got plenty of press. I particularly appreciated the USA Today version from Julie Schmit and Elizabeth Weise who have understood the importance of this story from the beginning, and whose article provides links to to the indictment documents.  As for why this story isn’t just about pet food, check out what the U.S. Olympic teams are doing about food when they go to Beijing for the summer games.

Feb 9 2008

Obesity: genetics vs. environment?

I can’t believe researchers are still arguing about whether obesity is due to genetics or environment when it is so obvious that both are involved.  The latest study compared identical with non-identical twins and concludes that genetics explains an astounding 77% of the difference in obesity.  That percentage is enormous in biological terms and reason enough for skepticism.  The accompanying editorial gives additional reasons.  My take on this: of course genetics matters, but 25 years ago kids didn’t used to be so fat and rates of childhood diabetes (type 2) used to be much lower.  Genetics cannot have changed much in the last 25 years.  If the percentage attributable to genetics really is this high, it means that 77% of the population is susceptible to becoming obese if the environmental conditions so predispose, which they most certainly do these days.  Your take?

Feb 7 2008

A functional food dilemma?

Kellogg’s is doing its bit for America’s health by adding whole grain to guess which cereal: Frosted Flakes! Kellogg’s sets its own nutritional standards–Kellogg Global Nutrient Criteria. This cereal meets them. Why do this? The whole grains provide enhanced nutrition for kids along with energy. Of course Frosted Flakes provide energy. They contain sugars!

Feb 7 2008

Welcome to the year of the rat

Thanks to Fred Tripp for making sure that no serious foodie misses yesterday’s Wall Street Journal report on eating rats in Viet Nam. Here is the food system connection: Because so many Vietnamese birds were destroyed to prevent the spread of bird flu, people are eating snakes and cats instead. With these predators out of the way, the rat population has exploded and lunch seems an excellent use for them. Interesting idea. A barbecue stand in Washington Square anyone?

Feb 5 2008

Healthy people are too expensive for society?

As suggested by the story in today’s New York Times, we can expect to hear much fuss about a new study showing that obese people and smokers cost less to treat.  Of course they do.  They die sooner. Healthy people are expensive say some Dutch economists in this new study.  Economists have an interesting way of looking at such things; all they care about is money.  But what about quality of life?  Shouldn’t that count as economic value?

Feb 4 2008

Mississippi does what?

So many people have sent me news about the proposed legislation in Mississippi to ban overweight people from eating in restaurants that I must say something about it. I thought it was a joke, but no such luck.  The bill truly exists.  Nobody expects it to get anywhere but I still think it’s bad public policy.  For one thing, I still remember lunch counter sit-ins during the civil rights movement, plenty of them in Mississippi.  For another, this won’t fix the environment to make it easier people to eat more healthfully.  Here are some alternative suggestions: How about requiring restaurants to give a price break for smaller portions or making smaller portions and healthy kids’ meals the default?