Food Politics

by Marion Nestle
Dec 1 2007

USDA proposes to define “Natural”

The Department of Agriculture, apparently concerned about consumer confusion over what “natural” meat might be, is proposing to define the term. Right now, “natural” means minimally processed plus whatever the marketer says it means, and nobody is checking (I devote a chapter of What to Eat to explaining all this). This proposal, as the USDA explains, would be a voluntary marketing claim (“no antibiotics, no hormones”). The proposal is open for comment until January 28. Want to comment? Do that at this site.

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Nov 30 2007

The deal on whole grains

The USDA has just published a report on eating whole grains. Who eats them? Hardly anyone, apparently–just 7% of the people surveyed meet recommendations. This 7% is the population segment that reads food labels, buys organic, and eats healthfully anyway. The USDA wrote this to establish a baseline. Stay tuned for the interventions. What should they be?

Nov 30 2007

India’s grocery transition

The Wall Street Journal offers a terrific window on India’s food transition. Take a look at the slideshow comparing India’s vegetable markets now to what they will look like once the German retailing company, Metro, gets established.

Nov 30 2007

Ethanol fuel in trouble?

The Wall Street Journal says the ethanol industry is in trouble since everyone has caught on to what it does to food prices, water resources, and energy balance. The ethanol industry lobbyists are on the move!

Nov 30 2007

CSPI’s latest school food report card

Kentucky and Oregon have initiated reasonable school food policies, according to the latest report from Center for Science in the Public Interest, but two-thirds of the states still get bad grades on their report cards. CSPI is working with Senator Harkin to get national standards into the farm bill. The report card is good evidence that voluntary standards aren’t working.

Nov 30 2007

Food banks in trouble

Today’s New York Times tells us that food banks are having a hard time meeting the need for their services. Food donations are down, and the number of people needing emergency food is up. I have heard this story over and over in the years since I first started writing about hunger policy. As Janet Poppendieck explains in her timeless book, Sweet Charity, food banks and emergency food–helpful as they are–are bad public policy. The Times article is excellent evidence for the need for better anti-hunger policies in the United States. It’s too bad things have to get so bad before anyone notices.

Nov 30 2007

Does Bisphenol A affect reproductive function or cancer risk?

The Department of Health and Human Services has just released a huge report from an expert panel on the potential toxicity of bisphenol A, a component of polycarbonate plastic bottles widely used to package bottled water, milk, and infant formulas. The Department initiated the report because of suggestions that bisphenol A disrupts endocrine function or causes prostate cancer in laboratory animals. The panel looked at all the studies it could find examining the effects of high and low dose bisphenol A on fetal development, reproductive function, accelerated onset of puberty, and prostate cancer.

I found the report a struggle to read, in part because it is so long (384 pages) and in part because it does not have an executive summary. The panel’s conclusions, which come way at the end, are also hard to figure out because they are expressed as degree of concern (negligible, minimal, or some) about the effects of bisphenol A on three groups: pregnant women, infants and children, and adults.

The good news is that the panel was surprised by how little evidence it found for adverse effects at either high or low doses. For adults its concern is negligible except for people who have high occupational exposures. For pregnant women, infants, and children, the panel has some concern about effects on the nervous system and behavior, but minimal concern about accelerated puberty. Mostly, the panel thinks more research is needed. The report is now open for comment.

Nov 30 2007

Bad news about acrylamide

A question posted about acrylamide asks: “I heard on the radio today that a study has demonstrated that the cooking of potatoes in oil, whether on top or in the oven, raises acrylamide to dangerous levels. In my novice readings, I have learned that traditional, more saturated fats may be more stable than the industrial veggie oils. So, to what extent are these results impacted by the frying fat?”

Acrylamide is a puzzle. It is a bad carcinogen but it appears in just about any carbohydrate-containing food that is heated to high temperature. And most foods contain at least some carbohydrate. High-carbohydrate foods, like potato chips and French fries, are prime examples of foods high in acrylamides. Food companies are working like mad to figure out ways to reduce levels in processed foods, and the European Union is also working hard on this problem. I put acrylamides in the category of things I don’t worry about much. They are in everything, especially high-carbohydrate junk foods–another reason to go easy on eating those foods.