The New York Times business reporter, Andrew Martin, starts a new column on the food and beverage industries today with an article on McDonald’s Portion Sizes and the introduction of Hugo drinks to temporarily replace the company’s phased-out Supersize portions. Mr. Martin’s article draws on a study on McDonald’s promises versus actions that I did in collaboration with my former doctoral student, Dr. Lisa Young, just published in the Journal of Public Health Policy. If you look at the comments to my previous entry on Hugo drinks, people do love getting 42-ounce drinks for as little as 69 cents. And, of course, they can fill those cups with water if they like.
At last the FDA is going to take a look at those confusing symbols on food packages purporting to tell you how healthy the products must be. PepsiCo uses green “Smart Spots.” Kraft uses green “Sensible Solutions.” Just about every breakfast cereal sports symbols indicating that they are low in fat, lactose-free, high in fiber, containing whole grains, and so forth. These are unregulated health claims, although the companies would argue that they are just providing information. As the FDA politely puts the matter, “Although each symbol intends to indicate that the food product bearing the symbol is a healthful choice, each symbol program has different nutrient requirements.” Indeed. The FDA will hold hearings on this topic on September 10 and 11 to solicit information and comments. If you have thoughts on whether companies should be allowed to use these symbols or scoring systems, or whether the FDA needs to establish firm criteria for their use, now might be a good time to let the agency know.
The Senate Agricultural Appropriations Committee has just announced that it will give the FDA an extra $48 million to fund food safety oversight. In federal terms, this is chump change but at least it’s an admission that the FDA is not adequately funded to meet its regulatory obligations. Why so little? Note that the money comes from agricultural appropriations, not health appropriations. This is the result of an historical anomaly; the FDA used to be part of the Department of Agriculture. When it was split off and eventually joined to the Department of Health and Human Services, its appropriations stayed with Agriculture. This, of course, is precisely the wrong place for it and helps explain why the FDA is so badly underfunded for what it has to do to protect the public from unsafe food. This is also part of the reason why the Government Accountability Office has been calling for creating a separately funded food safety agency that would take politics out of the food aspects of public health. If you think the present situation makes no sense, this is a good time to contact your congressional representatives.
Oh that nutrition and health were that simple. The The WHEL trial results appeared yesterday in JAMA. The sadly disappointing results of that trial showed no difference in rates of breast cancer recurrence among women who typically ate 5 servings of fruits and vegetables every day as compared to those who ate nearly twice that amount. I served on the data management committee for this trial and was involved with it for more than 10 years–a fascinating experience and a long saga. I thought the trial was exceptionally well done. The investigators monitored fruit and vegetable intake by measuring the amounts of carotenes and other nutrients in the blood of the participants. Although there was some convergence of dietary patterns over the 8 years of study, the patterns were distinct enough to show benefits from eating more fruits and vegetables if that had been the case. An accompanying editorial explains why sorting out diet and cancer risk is so complicated. In the meantime, what to do? We know that people who habitually eat fruits and vegetables are healthier than those who don’t. The old “five-a-day” is a reasonable goal and it’s too bad that the promoters of that message messed it up by turning it into “fruits & vegetables: more matters.” As with most things in nutrition, enough is enough and more is not necessarily better.
The New York City Health Department ruling that certain fast food places must post the calorie content of their products in some prominent place was supposed to go into effect in July but has been postponed as a result of litigation. An impressive group of public interest organizations–among them, Center for Science in the Public Interest, Public Citizen, and the American Public Health Association–has jointly filed the Waxman-Kessler et al Amicus Curiae Brief in the case. According to Assistant Commissioner Lynn Silver, Subways and Auntie Anne’s have already posted calories on menu boards. I think calorie labeling is worth a try. Most people do not have an intuitive feel for the number of calories in foods or the number they need, and are especially unable to predict the number of calories in larger size portions. Check it out and see if it makes a difference in what you choose.
A bunch of food companies promised today to stop marketing the worst of their junk foods directly to kids. I wish I could be more optimistic about what seem like amazingly generous pledges by these 11 companies. Will they really stop marketing junk food directly to young children? Remember: these are the very same companies that formed an alliance just a couple of years ago to protect their First Amendment rights to market junk foods to kids. So the companies are not making these promises as acts of altruism. They are forced to do this by public concerns about their role in promoting childhood obesity (for which there is much evidence and by fear of regulation if they don’t. Unfortunately, the history of what companies promise and what they actually do about marketing to kids is not reassuring. Kraft and McDonald’s, for example, have made similar promises in the past. Yes, they fulfilled some of the promises, but mostly they appear to be conducting business very much as usual. Food companies, of course, are caught in an impossible dilemma: even if they want to do the right thing, they can’t if it means losing sales. Maybe—just maybe—the companies will behave better because so many are joined in the effort. But who will hold them accountable? I say, let’s give them six months and see if they do what they say.
Another question today: “I BUY FARM RAISED SALMON FROM SUPERMARKET IT IS FROM ASIA. DOESN’T SAY COLOR ADDED. I SEE ATLANTIC FISH SO CALLED, NATURAL COLOR ADDED. WHY WOULD THEY SAY THAT IF IT IS NATURAL?? DO YOU HAVE AN ANSWER FOR THAT ONE.. THANKS.
LOVE YOUR ARTICLES. AL.”
Weird, no? I discuss this problem in the Fish Quandaries chapter of What to Eat in the section called Label Quandary #3: Artificial Color. The bottom line: all farmed salmon is colored pink because otherwise it would be an unappetizing gray and nobody would buy it. The color, which is fed to fish in the food pellets, usually is a synthetic version of the natural pigment (which originates from krill) but is sometimes isolated from yeast. Is either “natural?” This could be argued either way but the real point is that the FDA has not produced a regulatory definition for “Natural.” It should, if for no other reason than to end the confusion. Food companies want everything to appear “natural” because they know it sells. The fish section is the wild west of the supermarket. Caveat emptor!
Today’s question (see Flaxseeds) is about Chia seeds: “I have heard and read that Chia seeds, (Salvia hispanica, a plant of the genus Salvia in the Mint family) are very high in omega-3s and very nutritious in several other ways. They were highly prized by the Aztecs and have been touted as a little-known “superfood”. Have you any knowledge about them or the accuracy of this?”
I consulted my standard sources for this sort of thing, Wikipedia (always a good place to start and then confirm independently) and the USDA’s authoritative data on food composition. As you suggest, Chia seeds have a good balance of omega-3 unsaturated fatty acids. But does this really make it a “superfood?” I think foods are foods. All natural, unprocessed foods have a mix of nutrients and the best approach is to eat a lot of different kinds of relatively unprocessed foods that together provide the nutrients and other components of food that promote health. Chia seeds, like flaxseeds or other kinds of seeds, nuts, fruits, vegetables, and grains contribute good things to the diet, but it’s the overall combination of foods you eat that counts. Enjoy Chia seeds if you like them, but are they a miracle food? I wish it were that easy.