Food Politics

by Marion Nestle
Apr 17 2024

The harm caused by Brexit: a wee example

The headline reads: “Brexit has cost the UK up to £100m in lost salmon sales, according to industry body Scotland Salmon.”

Increased red tape and costs triggered by the UK’s departure from the EU in January 2020 has seen exports of Salmon to the trade bloc drop 16% to 44,000 tonnes in 2023.

While export values to the EU were only down 3% to £356m, this was only because strong global demand had driven up prices. Had the sector maintained volumes at 2019 levels, sales would have been above £430m.

Ultimately the sector experienced a net loss of £75m, or up to £100m had it continued to grow at the rate previously expected.

Comment: I’ve written about Brexit repeatedly (for example here) always with a dim view of its value, especially to food and agriculture.  In today’s world we need unity and community and taking care of each other, not splitting apart.  Nobody much wants to talk about what a disaster it has been for the UK.  I thought this was a small and specific example, but I’m guessing it’s highly representative.  Brexit was a tragedy for the UK.  Really, they ought to admit error, apologize, and repeal it.

Additon: Oh, the irony (thanks to Hugh Joseph)


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Apr 16 2024

What is the FDA’s food regulatory role anyway?

The keynote address at the Consumer Federation of America’s annual food policy conference was given by the FDA’s new Deputy Commissioner for Human Foods, James “Jim” Jones.

He talked about his priorities and what he’s hoping the FDA will do.  Fine.

But in the Q and A, he was pushed repeatedly by Mike Jacobson (former head of CSPI) to say what the FDA would be doing to pressure the food industry to reduce salt in the food supply, something the FDA has promised to do for years with little progress.

In response, Jones said: “…I wouldn’t say pressure.  Pressure is not our statutory authority…isn’t to pressure….it is to help manage the food supply in a way that makes it healthier for Americans.”

Oh dear.

Pressuring the food industry most certainly is in the FDA’s authority.  I can think of lots of things the FDA has done that directly oppose food industry interests despite plenty of industry pushback: food labels in general and trans fat and sugar labeling in particular, restrictions on health claims, food safety regulations, and anything else the agency has done to force food companies to behave in the interest of public health.

Food companies will act in the public interest, only when they have to.  Jones’ statement, if that’s what he meant, is an alarming indication of agency capture.

The FDA is a regulatory agency and part of the Public Health Service.  It’s not supposed to win popularity contests.  It’s not supposed to be an arm of the food industry.

It’s supposed to take whatever tough steps are needed to keep the food supply safe and healthy so as to improve the overall health of Americans.

Yes, the FDA should be pressuring food companies about salt (and sugar, for that matter), and as strongly as possible.

Maybe I am misunderstanding what he said.  I hope so.

Here’s the video of the session.  Jacobson’s questions begin at 19:30.  Watch and decide for yourself.

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Apr 15 2024

Industry-funded study of the week: Nuts

The study: Mixed nut consumption improves brain insulin sensitivity: a randomized, single-blinded, controlled, crossover trial in older adults with overweight or obesity.  American Journal of Clinical Nutrition.

Objective: “This study aimed to investigate longer-term effects of mixed nuts on brain insulin sensitivity in older individuals with overweight/obesity.”

Methods: “In a randomized, single-blinded, controlled, crossover trial, twenty-eight healthy adults (mean±SD; 65±3 years; BMI: 27.9±2.3 kg/m2) received either daily 60 g mixed nuts (15 g of walnuts, pistachio, cashew, and hazelnuts) or no nuts (control) for 16 weeks, separated by an 8-week washout period.”

Results: “Compared with control, mixed nut consumption improved regional brain insulin action in five clusters located in the left…and right occipital lobe.

Conclusions: “Longer-term mixed nut consumption affected insulin action in brain regions involved in the modulation of metabolic and cognitive processes in older adults with overweight/obesity.”

Funding: “This study was supported by a grant obtained from the International Nuts and Dried Fruit Council (INC). The INC had no role in the study design, data collection or analysis, decision to publish, or preparation of the manuscript.”

Comment: Does this study have any clinical significance?  Body weight and composition did not change. I’m all for nut-eating—love them—but for this reason?  Hardly.  Despite what this study implies, nuts have calories and they most definitely count.

Apr 12 2024

Weekend reading: The Good Eater

Nina Guilbeault.  The Good Eater: A Vegan’s Search for the Future of Food.  Bloomsbury, 2024.

I did a back-cover blurb for this book:

The Good Eater is a vegan sociologist’s remarkably open-minded exploration of the historical, ethical, health, environmental, and social justice implications of not eating meat.  Guilbeault’s extensive research and interviews get right into the tough questions about this movement, leaving us free to choose for ourselves whether to eat this way.

Guilbeault has followed vegan dietary practices (no animal products) for a long time but was troubled by the self-righteousness and proselytizing of many vegans.  As a trained sociologist, she set out to investigate the origins, practices, and effects of vegan diets, through reading but also through interviews with what seems like everyone having anything to do with animal welfare and plant-forward diets.  The result is an exceptionally broad look at the who’s who of veganism, from historical figures to contemporary entrepreneurs and chefs.  The book is well written, rational, and not at all uncritical.

Here’s are a couple of excerpts:

Projections show that to avert environmental disaster by 2050 we need to reduce our meat consumption by at least a third, and by half in North America and Europe…But many people still eat eggs for breakfast and yogurt as a snack, put dairy milk in their coffee, add a slice of ham to their sandwich for lunch, and choose a piece of meat or fish for dinner, all in one day.  A reduction from that daily menu to a couple of eggs and a small piece of meat or fish once a week seems like a hefty drop, yet that is how humanity has eaten for most of our natural history.  (pp 284-285)

I can understand why, for many people, a vegan lifestyle seems unappealing, overwhelming, or even downright offensive.  As we know, meat has played a key part in our cultural and evolutionary history, and habits are notoriously difficult to break.  Veganism requires a shift in identity as well as the embrace of a social category still on the fringe….This is partly because being vegan in a non-vegan world is hard, but also because the vegan movement places an emphasis on moral perfection.  Yet…long-lasting, sustainable change doesn’t come from a place of shame, judgment, and guilt.  It comes from a place of joy and a sense of belonging.  (p 290)


Apr 11 2024

Fruit juices: a worry?

Fruit juices were not a problem when I was growing up.

Ancient history: Juice was so expensive—it was freshly squeezed from several oranges—that we couldn’t afford to drink much of it,  Juice glasses were 6 ounces.

This was long before cheap concentrated juice appeared in supermarkets, let alone canned and bottled juices and juice drinks.

Because juice is squeezed from several fruits, the sugars add up but the fiber disappears.

The USDA says more than half of apples available for U.S. consumption are used in juices.

All that juice may not be as healthy as you might think.  Two reasons: calories and toxic metals.

CALORIES: Consumption of 100% Fruit Juice and Body Weight in Children and AdultsA Systematic Review and Meta-Analysis.

in this systematic review and meta-analysis, 1 serving per day of 100% fruit juice was associated with BMI gain among children. Findings in adults found a significant association among studies unadjusted for total energy, suggesting potential mediation by calories…Our findings support guidance to limit consumption of fruit juice to prevent intake of excess calories and weight gain.

TOXIC METALS: Toxic metals and essential elements contents in commercially available fruit juices and other non-alcoholic beverages from the United States. Journal of Food Composition and Analysis, Volume 119, June 2023, 105230.

The results showed that the concentrations of Ni, Mn, B, Cd, Sr, As, and Se exceeded the recommended drinking water standards, whereas the remaining elements were found below the drinking water standards….consumption of metals either below or above the drinking water standards can increase the cumulative metals exposure from combined sources and may lead to adverse health outcomes…The study found seven of the 25 elements measured exceeded drinking water standards, especially in the mixed fruit juices. While toxicity is unlikely, more attention should be paid toward moderate beverage consumption, especially to protect the health of infants and young children.

The fruit juice industry—yes, there is such a thing—is fighting back by funding its own research (thanks to Jim Krieger of Healthy Food America for sending this one).

The study:  Health effects of 100% fruit and vegetable juices: evidence from human intervention studies. September 2023.  Nutrition Research Reviews.  DOI: 10.1017/S095442242300015X.

Purpose: The review aimed to shed light on the potential impact of 100% FVJ on human subject health, comprehensively assessing the role each type of juice may have in specific health outcomes for a particular target population, as reported in dietary interventions.

Findings: Some juices demonstrated their ability to exert potential preventive effects on some outcomes while others on other health outcomes, emphasising how the differential composition in bioactive compounds defines juice effects.

Conclusion: Although 100% FVJ appear to have beneficial effects on some cardiometabolic health outcomes, cognition and exercise performance, or neutral effects on anthropometric parameters and body composition, further efforts are needed to better understand the impact of 100% FVJ on human subject health.

Funding: This work was partially funded by the International Fruit and Vegetable Juice Association (IFU). The funder of the study had no input on the design, implementation, analysis or interpretation of the data. P.M. received a research grant from IFU to conduct this review. The authors have no other conflicts of interest to declare.

Comment: This is the usual result from industry-funded articles.  Fruit is better, but juices are fine in small amounts—bring back 6-ounce glasses!

And while we are on the topic, this just in: Are all sugars equal? Role of the food source in physiological responses to sugars with an emphasis on fruit and fruit juice.

Of the currently available data on direct comparisons of whole fruit versus fruit juice, there is no clear evidence for meaningful differences in glycaemic control, inflammation, or blood pressure. There is, however, consistent evidence that whole apples can lower plasma low-density lipoprotein cholesterol concentrations compared with fruit juice.

Apr 10 2024

Supplement in Japan causes illnesses, deaths

The headline caught my eye: 5 dead and over 100 hospitalized from recalled Japanese health supplements

The supplement is benikoji.

Kobayashi Pharmaceutical had been selling benikoji products for years, with a million packages sold over the past three fiscal years, but a problem crept up with the supplements produced in 2023. Kobayashi Pharmaceutical said it produced 18.5 tons of benikoji last year.

Apparently, the company knew there was a problem but delayed the recall.

What, you may well ask, is benikoji?   The answer: Red yeast rice.

Red yeast rice is a well known dietary supplement.  it contains lovastatin.  Like other statins, it lowers blood cholesterol levels.

Consumer Lab, which tests and evaluates dietary supplements, says,

Red yeast rice can be very effective in lowering elevated levels of cholesterol, as shown in several clinical trials (see What It Does). However, not all red yeast rice supplements contain the amount of lovastatin needed to lower cholesterol, and products normally do not list the amount of lovastatin they contain on their labels.

In its testing, Consumer Lab found the amounts of lovastatin to range from zero to 7.5 mg per  two pills.  It added:
Of additional concern is that CL found a potential kidney toxin, citrinin, in 30% of products, one of which contained citrinin at a level 65 times the limit allowed in Europe (there is no established limit in the U.S.).

Like other dietary supplements, nobody is minding the store.  Nobody makes sure the contents of a supplement reflect what is on the label or that labels are accurate.  The FDA says adding lovastatin to red yeast rice, which some manufacturors do, apparently, is illegal in the U.S.  But how would you know?

We don’t know what was wrong with the benikoji supplements.  The company said it found  puberulic acid, which is highly toxic,  in the recalled supplements, but investigations are continuing.

No surprise, I am not a fan of dietary supplements.  I want those products regulated, investigated, tested, and monitored.  Until they are, I’m not touching them.
Apr 9 2024

What’s the story on bird flu?

I’m trying to make sense of the ongoing spread of bird flu to chickens, dairy cows, and an occasional person.

Bird flu, avian influenza, is (obviously) a viral disease in wild birds, but highly pathogenic strains can and do infect chickens, animals, and people.

It was considered sporadic and not much of a problem until we started industrial chicken production, crowding tens of thousands of chickens together in on huge barn.  Viruses can spread easily under those conditions.

Once bird flu gets into a chicken flock, the common practice is to—and here is one of my favorite euphemisms—“depopulate” the birds.

Or try another euphemism: The virus has “claimed” 2 million chickens in Texas.

“Culling” (another term) is expensive and cruel.  And taxpayers pay for it.

But now, to further complicate matters, bird flu has spread to at least 13 herds of dairy cows.

This is being attributed to contagion from migratory birds.  But milking and herd transport may also be responsible.

Bird flu has also spread to at least one person who worked with dairy cows.

Oh dear.  This has “spooked” cattle and dairy stock prices.

But there’s more: Scientists suspect bird flu may be responsible for widespread deaths of penguins in Antarctica.

This virus is causing lots of problems and I’d like to know a lot more about what is causing its transmission.

In the meantime, the CDC says the risk to humans is low, but people who work with chickens or susceptible animals should take precautions.

Masks and handwashing?  Always a good idea.

Apr 8 2024

Industry-funded study of the week: another rare exception (cocoa)

As I pretty much demonstrate every Monday, industry-funded studies almost invariably produce results favoring the sponsor’s interests.

But here we have a rare exception to the rule:

  • The study: Effect of cocoa extract supplementation on cognitive function: results from the clinic subcohort of the COSMOS trial.  The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition,Volume 119, Issue 1, January 2024, Pages 39-48.
  • Objective: “To test whether daily supplementation with CE, compared with placebo, produces better cognitive change over 2 y.”
  • Conclusions: “Among 573 older adults who underwent repeat in-person, detailed neuropsychological assessments over 2 y, daily CE supplementation, compared with placebo, showed no overall benefits for global or domain-specific cognitive function. Possible cognitive benefits of CE among those with poorer diet quality warrant further study.”
  • Funding: The Cocoa Supplement and Multivitamin Outcomes Study (COSMOS) is supported by an investigator-initiated grant from Mars Edge, a segment of Mars dedicated to nutrition research and products, which included infrastructure support and the donation of study pills and packaging. Pfizer Consumer Healthcare (now Haleon) provided support through the partial provision of study pills and packaging.

Comment: Why anyone would think that cocoa extract would have any efffect at all on cognitive function is beyond me, but I, in sharp contrast to Mars, am not trying to sell cocoa extract or convince anyone that M&Ms are a health food.  But, as seems invariably the case, the investigators did give Mars a small break in favorably finding “possible” cognitive benefits of cocoa extract for people eating terrible diets.  My prediction: further studies will not find benefits of cocoa extract—or M&Ms—on cognitive function even though eating M&Ms can be lots of fun.