Food Politics

by Marion Nestle
Aug 25 2020

Food insecurity is rising, especially among kids

The Wall Street Journal reports “More Americans Go Hungry Amid Coronavirus Pandemic, Census Shows.

As of late last month, about 12.1% of adults lived in households that didn’t have enough to eat at some point in the previous week, up from 9.8% in early May, Census figures show. And almost 20% of Americans with kids at home couldn’t afford to give their children enough food, up from almost 17% in early June.

The most shocking revelation?  Try this.

What’s going on here?

If ever there was a need for policy, this is it.

Aug 24 2020

Coronavirus marketing exploitation of the week: Lays travel chips

 

According to ABC News:

With so many people feeling cooped up due to restrictions in place because of the coronavirus pandemic, potato chip maker Lay’s has developed four new internationally-inspired flavors to satisfy both food and travel cravings alike.

But here’s the real gimmick:

The new flavors won’t be sold in stores.  Anyone wishing to taste one of the new flavors will have to reply to one of the company’s social media posts and tell them which country you’d like to visit.  A bag from the country they choose will be shipped to the lucky winners.

Lays tried this in 2016.  But you could buy those in stores, although not for long evidently.  The Greek Tzatziki flavor is the only one of that lot to make it into this one.

Frito-Lay, of course, is owned by PepsiCo.  So this is Big Food in marketing action.

Aug 21 2020

Weekend reading: Diabetes, race, and class

Arleen Tuchman.  Diabetes: A History of Race and Disease.  Yale University Press, 2020.Diabetes: A History of Race and Disease: 9780300228991: Medicine & Health Science Books @ Amazon.comI did a blurb for this book:

This is a superb, deeply researched history of the role of racism and class bias in perceptions of type 2 diabetes.  Its root causes?  Poverty and discriminationa new vision for a prevention agenda.

Tuchman does for type 2 diabetes what historians of other diseases have done: explore the central role of race and racism.  Racism, she explains, can

Generate ill health by producing pathological responses to the stress of living in a society in which skin color is endowed with privileges denied to others.  Racism, in other words, can make people sick.  In this way, racism—not race—becomes a fundamental cause of differential disease rates, making it impossible to draw a sharp line between what is biological and what is social.

As she documents, health professionals first viewed diabetes as a disease of the Jews—perhaps because they went to doctors more often.   It took decades for scientists to distinguish type 1 from type 2 diabetes, and more decades to recognize that its higher prevalence among non-white minority groups might be due to the obesity-promoting diets and lifestyles of poverty.

For documentation of the social determinants of health, this book is an instant classic.

Aug 20 2020

What else is happening with plant-based meat alternatives

Since writing about Christopher Gardner’s study on Monday this week, I have plant-based meats on my mind.  Here are some other recent items about the booming interest in these products.

Aug 19 2020

The latest on USDA’s food boxes: they now come with a personal note from Trump

I learned about this latest development in the ongoing sage of USDA’s food boxes from Maine Representative Chellie Pingree on Twitter.

Trump’s letter is here.

The letter from members of Congress to USDA is here.

It has a list of ten questions, among them my two favorites:

5. Identify the total amount of funding expended or obligated to plan, coordinate, draft, review, provide stakeholder or public notification, and disseminate the President’s letter. Include the specific regulatory or statutory authorities associated with such funding.

7. Explain the rationale for why the letter is signed by the President on White House letterhead rather than by the Secretary of Agriculture and/or the Secretary of Health and Human Services.

Politico Morning Agriculture asks (“A new front in the food box fracas,” August 17):

So what’s the upshot? Besides heightened scrutiny of the ongoing effort, the new controversy could further motivate key lawmakers who are pushing to tighten restrictions on how the department spends any future farm relief funds — assuming Congress and the White House ever agree on a new stimulus package…

Aug 18 2020

The UK takes on obesity: a new campaign

Boris Johnson, the UK’s admittedly overweight prime minister, has suddenly become a champion of anti-obesity policy, following his bout with Covid-19.

As the Washington Post puts it, “Boris Johnson says ‘I was too fat’ as he launches anti-obesity campaign.”

The campaign is based on two reports, one detailing the high and growing prevalence of obesity in Great Britain and its links to Covid-19 susceptibility.

The second is a government policy report, which says it is

  • introducing a new campaign – a call to action for everyone who is overweight to take steps to move towards a healthier weight, with evidence-based tools and apps with advice on how to lose weight and keep it off
  • working to expand weight management services available through the NHS [National Health Service], so more people get the support they need to lose weight
  • publishing a 4-nation public consultation to gather views and evidence on our current ‘traffic light’ label to help people make healthy food choices
  • introducing legislation to require large out-of-home food businesses, including restaurants, cafes and takeaways with more than 250 employees, to add calorie labels to the food they sell
  • consulting on our intention to make companies provide calorie labelling on alcohol
  • legislating to end the promotion of foods high in fat, sugar or salt (HFSS) by restricting volume promotions such as buy one get one free, and the placement of these foods in prominent locations intended to encourage purchasing, both online and in physical stores in England
  • banning the advertising of HFSS products being shown on TV and online before 9pm and holding a short consultation as soon as possible on how we introduce a total HFSS advertising restriction online

The UK food industry does not like this.  It insists that this campaign is “a terrible missed opportunity.”

I was interested to see Hank Cardello’s comment on this (Cardello is with the conservative Hudson Institute in the US): “How A Libertarian Is Tackling Obesity And Why Big Food Should Worry.”  Cardello thinks that Johnson’s efforts are the wave of the future.  The food industry should stop fighting public health measures, he says.  Instead, it should:

  • Get ahead of imposed regulations instead of resisting change. Instead of fighting public health initiatives, they can lead the way with research that defines workable steps to reverse the obesity crisis.
  • Educate with public service ads. It’s time that food and restaurant corporations air public service announcements (PSAs) about healthy eating and the impact of high sugar, salt and fat on health and obesity.
  • Commit to a BHAG (”Big Hairy Audacious Goal”). They can decide, for instance, that at least 50% of the products they sell will be healthier versions or in smaller portions.

Wouldn’t that be terrific, and it’s great that he’s saying so (I keep telling him that he sounds more like me every day).

But can food companies follow his advice?  Not as long as they put profits to shareholders, first, alas.

That’s what really needs to change.

Aug 17 2020

Industry-funded study of the week: Beyond Meat

Stanford University issued a press release to announce the results of a study comparing physiological effects of eating plant-based meat alternatives (Beyond Meat) to eating foods of animal origin.

A diet that includes an average of two servings of plant-based meat alternatives lowers some cardiovascular risk factors compared with a diet that instead includes the same amount of animal meat, Stanford Medicine scientists found.

The study:  A randomized crossover trial on the effect of plant-based compared with animal-based meat on trimethylamine-N-oxide and cardiovascular disease risk factors in generally healthy adults: Study With Appetizing Plantfood—Meat Eating Alternative Trial (SWAP-MEAT).  Crimarco A, et al.  American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, August 11, 2020.  https://doi.org/10.1093/ajcn/nqaa203

Overall conclusion: “This study found several beneficial effects and no adverse effects from the consumption of plant-based meats.”

The sponsor: “Supported by a research gift from Beyond Meat Inc. (to CDG)…Funding for this study was provided by Beyond Meat. In an effort to reduce any influences on the outcomes of this study, a statistical analysis plan was submitted to ct.gov. The main analysis was conducted by a third-party individual who had no involvement with the study design or collection of data, and was blinded to all study participants.

Comment

Ordinarily, I would simply present this study as a classic example of how industry-funded studies predictably produce results that favor the commercial interests of their sponsors, a topic to which I devoted my book, Unsavory Truth: How Food Companies Skew the Science of What We Eat.

But CDG is Christopher Gardner, the study’s lead scientist, whose impressive track record of managing complicated clinical trials of diet and health I greatly admire.

Gardner describes himself as a vegan (meaning that he eats no animal products).

Knowing of my concerns about industry-funded research, he wrote me some months ago to say that this study was in the works and to point out that he has done at least six industry-funded studies with null findings (he sent me a PowerPoint slide deck to prove it).  In his correspondence, he said:

  • “I believe this is the FIRST industry funded study I’ve run that had a significant positive health finding.”
  • “Beyond Meat was not involved in design or analysis, and to this day still doesn’t know the study outcome.”
  • “I’m preparing myself for being called out as a vegan industry shill….hoping I’ve established a reputation for objectivity to withstand this 😱”
  • “PS – Hope you enjoy the study acronym (Study With Alternative Plantfood – Meat Eating Alternative Trial: SWAP-MEAT)” [Indeed I do].

OK.  So let’s take this study on its merits.

Gardner asked healthy non-vegetarian adults (36) to consume 2 servings a day of either Beyond Meat or regular meat (what the study calls Animal Meat).  The Beyond Meat and Animal Meat were provided to participants.  The rest of their diets was on their own.

For 8 weeks, they ate Beyond Meat or Animal Meat.  For the next 8 weeks, they switched over to the other kind.

Results: Participants consuming Beyond Meat displayed lower levels of

  • LDL-cholesterol (the bad kind)
  • Body weight (by 1 or 2 pounds)
  • TMAO (Trimethylamine N-oxide)—but only for those who consumed Animal Meat first and Beyond Meat second (not the other way around)

Beyond Meat may be plant-based, but it is ultraprocessed.  FoodNavigator produced a nice comparison.

Beyond Meat would dearly love to demonstrate that its ultraprocessed composition is immaterial to its health benefits.  Hence: this study.

Beyond Meat is already using it for marketing purposes: “New study finds health benefits of plant-based meats.”

As I see it, there are two issues here: (a) what else the participants were eating and (b) the significance of the TMAO measurements.

(a) The diet: This was not a controlled dietary intake trial conducted in a closed metabolic ward.  Participants were free to eat whatever they liked and how much they liked.  They lost a little weight during the Beyond Meat phase, which means they must have been eating fewer calories during that phase, as they reported (this graph is in the Supplementary material).

Reported daily calories were under 2000, which means that lots of calories must not have been reported.  So it’s hard to know what the weight loss is actually due to.

(b)  TMAO: You make TMAO after you eat foods containing choline, a compound common in animal-based foods: meat, poultry, fish, and eggs.  A 2019 editorial review in JAMA discusses the association of TMAO with heart disease risk.

Now, researchers are homing in on another possible culprit: a dietary metabolite linked to red meat called trimethylamine N-oxide, or TMAO. Three recent meta-analyses confirmed that high blood levels of TMAO are associated with increased risks of cardiovascular disease and all-cause mortality. One of the studies, published in the Journal of the American Heart Association in 2017, found a more than 60% heightened risk of both major adverse cardiovascular events and death from all causes in people with elevated TMAO. Other research has associated higher TMAO levels with heart failure and chronic kidney disease.

On the other hand, an analysis by Dr. Bret Scher raises questions about whether TMAO has any real meaning for health (and I thank Stephen Zwick for sending this to me).

In my opinion, this is an example of a well-run study that, in the end, lends very little to our knowledge of human health….The main outcome from this intervention had to do with TMAO. Why is this problematic? Well, it has to do with the fact that small, short-term trials are unable to measure meaningful endpoints, such as who lives, dies, or who gets heart disease.  So, instead, the authors have to choose the surrogate outcome markers that they believe relate to human health.

Dr. Scher believes that “There is no convincing evidence that these results impact someone’s health.”  As Scher has discussed previously, he sees no cause-and-effect relationship between TMAO levels and health.  You can read his arguments here:

The bottom line?  This study suggests that two servings a day of Beyond Meat is unlikely to be harmful.  Whether substituting Beyond Meat for real meat is truly useful for health in the absence of other dietary changes remains to be confirmed, hopefully by independently funded research.

Aug 14 2020

Weekend reading: Jessica Harris’s Vintage Postcards

Jessica Harris. Vintage Postcards from the African World: In the Dignity of Their Work and the Joy of Their Play.  University of Mississippi Press, 2020.

Amazon.com: Vintage Postcards from the African World: In the Dignity of  Their Work and the Joy of Their Play (Atlantic Migrations and the African  Diaspora) eBook: Harris, Jessica B.: Kindle Store

I reviewed this book for Food, Culture, and Society, which published my review online on July 23, 2020.  It won’t appear in print until November 2021.  Emily Contois, the fabulous book review editor, is way ahead.

Here’s what I said about it.

Some years ago, I was in Woods Hole and hopped on the ferry to Martha’s Vineyard to visit Jessica Harris at her cottage in the historic African-American community at Oak Bluffs. I knew her as the distinguished culinary historian, cookbook author, and scholar of the African food diaspora. In the early years of NYU’s food studies program, she taught brilliant courses on food and culture that I sat in on whenever I could. She is now retired from a long teaching career at Queens College.

During that Oak Bluffs visit, Harris showed me boxes packed with old postcards depicting Africans – and their descendants throughout the world – growing, carrying, preparing, and eating food. I couldn’t stop looking at them, and I’ve never stopped wondering what happened to them. This book is the answer, and a perfect fit with the University of Mississippi’s series on Atlantic Migration and the African Diaspora, which Harris edits.

In addition to her other accomplishments, Harris is a passionate deltiologist, a term new to my vocabulary meaning one who collects – and sometimes studies – postcards, which Harris had been doing for fifty years. She begins the book with three short essays – a description of when, how, and where she amassed her collection; a discussion of what can be learned from postcards and the kinds of questions that need to be asked about them (illustrated with about 25 examples); and a history of the introduction and use of postcards from the 1870s on. She also includes guidelines on how to estimate a postcard’s date (not easy).

But most of the book is devoted to 168 color illustrations of postcards from her collection, almost all from the early 1900s. These illustrate people at work and play from Africa, the Caribbean, and the United States in three categories: farm, garden, and sea; marketplace, venders, cooks; and leisure, entertainments, and festivities. Their captions repeat information printed on the front, state whatever is printed or written on the back, and, if the card is stamped, give the date it was mailed. For example, a photograph of a Caribbean sugar warehouse (which reminded me of Kara Walker’s magnificent 2014 “sugar baby” sculpture in Brooklyn’s Domino Sugar Factory), is captioned: “Stacking Bags of Raw Sugar. Back: Post Card British Manufacture. Printed for the Imperial Institute by McCorquodale & Co. Ltd. London. A Red Bromide Photograph. (Divided Back.)” (84).

That’s it. Unless the card has this information, the captions say nothing about who took the picture, where, and in what year, who is depicted, its context, its purpose, or whether it was taken in a studio. In her introductory essay, “”Interrogating the Images,” Harris says “I am not a postcard scholar” (19). She collected and selected the cards for their illustration of culinary or cultural history and colonial exploitation, but also for their beauty, curiosity, or inscrutability. If you want to know more, it’s up to you to find that out and develop your own interpretation.

Despite that protestation, Harris cannot avoid taking a scholar’s approach. She points out the colonial attitudes expressed in the images or their titles–“elegant banana seller” (30), or the bare-breasted women selling foods at a “native” market in Dakar that looks like something out of the early years of National Geographic. This market could not possibly be in Dakar, Harris notes, Senegal is a Muslim country, where women did not appear in public unclothed.

In this era of #BlackLivesMatter, it is uncomfortable to look at images of picturesque poverty or colonial exploitation: “Blacks in a Moorish café” (68), “Zulus at Mealtime” (69), or even “Water coconut vendor” (97) are depicted as exotics. Given its racist history, the United States postcards are particularly problematic: “Polly in the Peanut Patch” (110), “Negro Vegetable Vendor” (123), “Old/Southern Kitchen and Negro Manny” (130) should and do make us squirm. It’s hard to view “Food for contention” (135) as just a charming photograph of a little girl reaching for her brother’s watermelon slice if such images weren’t so fraught with racist meanings.

Each of these images has a story behind it that calls for analysis by food studies scholars. Harris’s Vintage Postcards should inspire all of us to become avid deltiologists.