Food Politics

by Marion Nestle
Feb 23 2024

Weekend reading: FAO calls for food systems-based dietary guidelines

The U.N.’s Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) is taking the lead on bringing dietary guidelines into the 21st Century.

It is calling for national dietary guidelines not only to be nutrient-based and food-based, but food systems-based.

Food systems-based guidelines extend beyond food-based guidelines that “provide advice on foods, food groups and dietary patterns to provide the required nutrients to the general public to promote overall health and prevent chronic diseases.”

Food system-based guidelines not only address health and nutritional priorities but also consider sociocultural, economic, and environmental sustainability factors.  This means

context-specific multilevel recommendations that enable governments to outline what constitutes a healthy diet from sustainable food systems, align food-related policies and programmes and support the population to adopt healthier and more sustainable dietary patterns and practices that favour, among other outcomes, environmental sustainability and socio-economic equity.

This is a huge advance.  It means that sustainability issues are essential components of dietary advice.

From now on, dietary guidelines that do not consider sustainability are out of date.

Note: By order of Congress, the 2015-2020 Dietary Guidelines did not consider sustainability in its meat recommendations and sustainability was off the table for the 2020-2025 Dietary Guidelines and also for the 2025-2030 version now underway.  This means the new guidelines issues in 2025 will be dated and largely irrelevant to the modern era.

Unless the Advisory Committee gets to work.  I hope it does.

Feb 22 2024

USDA’s latest campaign: checkoff-based sandwiches of all things

I received this email from USDA’s MyPlate group:

Hi Marion

MyPlate National Strategic Partners, a group developed by the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA), just announced the launch of a new resource to help Americans build healthier sandwiches! The full press release is below, and I am happy to answer any questions or arrange any interviews!

WASHINGTON, D.C. – January 11, 2024 – As MyPlate National Strategic Partners, the Grain Foods Foundation, Hass Avocado Board, National Association of State Departments of Agriculture Foundation and National Wheat Foundation are excited to introduce a new resource aimed at helping individuals build healthier and more nutritious sandwiches.

Every day, nearly half of all Americans enjoy a sandwich – and most people are not meeting recommendations of the Dietary Guidelines for Americans.[1] The new “Build a Better Sandwich” resource features practical tips to help bridge this gap, with realistic and inspiring ideas for enjoying a variety of grains, lean proteins and fiber-filled fruits and vegetables and low-fat dairy in better-built sandwiches…To download the “Build a Better Sandwich” resource and other materials created by MyPlate National Strategic Partners, please visit

[1] Sebastian et al. Sandwich consumption by adults in the U.S.: What We Eat In America, NHANES 2009-2012. Food Surveys Research Group Dietary Data Brief No. 14. Dec 2015.

Given the sponsors, want to take a guess at how you are supposed to make these sandwiches?

I’m all for healthier sandwiches and eating avocados (love them!), but this is an example of the Hass Avocado Board—a USDA-sponsored checkoff (marketing and promotion) program—at work.

Don’t you think it’s odd that the USDA’s doesn’t include a broader range of vegetables or plant foods in its sandwich advice?

This is one of the many things wrong with USDA sponsorship of checkoff programs….

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Feb 21 2024

Mac & Cheese sales down: blame SNAP

Every now and then a headline makes me gasp:

Deena Shankar’s article in Bloomberg News begins:

It’s been just about a year since the US government slashed additional pandemic-related food-stamp benefits, and some of the companies that make and sell food are seeing that hit their sales.

As she explains,

Enhanced benefits for the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP, ended last February, meaning families and individuals saw monthly cuts of $95 to $250 or more in what they received. Families with kids lost at the high end of the spectrum, according to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, a nonpartisan research and policy institute.

Never mind the effects of reduced benefits on low-income families.

packaged-food giant Kraft Heinz Co. cited the reduction in benefits as a major headwind that the company and the industry faced in 2023. “We saw some challenges in our mac-and-cheese business,” Chief Executive Officer Carlos Abrams-Rivera said on an earnings call. “Frankly, it’s a business that is driven disproportionately by our SNAP exposure.”

How’s that for a gasp-inducing statement.  SNAP recipients are the core customers for this product.

If you want to know about inequities in the US food system, start here.

Kraft Mac & Cheese exemplifies cheap ultra-processed food.

Walmart sells five boxes for $4.88, less than a dollar a box.

For that, you are supposed to get three servings per box, but the whole box adds up to:

  • 750 calories
  • 1680 mg sodium,(4.2 grams of salt)
  • 27 grams sugars

And what’s in this?


Walmart sells a pound of carrots for $1.38.

There is something seriously wrong with a food system that makes a 750-calorie Mac and Cheese product so much cheaper than a pound of carrots.

Feb 20 2024

Harmful chemicals in food: recent studies are not reassuring

I don’t say much about potentially harmful agricultural or other industrial chemicals in food for several reasons:

BUT (in capital letters because it is a bit one):

Studies of three chemicals illustrate these problems.


What it is: A herbicide used to kill broadleaf weeds that grow in fields of corn, wheat, and dicamba-tolerant soybeans.

Why it’s a worry: It can cause immediate toxic effects and might be carcinogenic.  It is highly volatile and can damage non-target plants through drifting, causing constant complaints from neighboring farmers.  The courts have overturned the EPA’s approval of dicamba use.  Even though the EPA admits dicamba has adverse effects on handlers as well as “birds, mammals, bees (larvae), aquatic plants and non-target terrestrial plants,” it is allowing existing stocks of dicamba to continue to be used.

The recent study: The headline: Alarming levels of weed killer found in study of pregnant women.  The study examined changes in the the number of pregnant women with dicamba in their urine and the amounts excreted from 2020-2012 to 2020-2022.  It found increases in both measures.

Conclusion: “Reliance on herbicides has drastically increased in the last ten years in the United States, and the results obtained in this study highlight the need to track exposure and impacts on adverse maternal and neonatal outcomes.”


What these are: Chemicals used to soften polyvinylchloride plastics.

The concern: Phthalates leach into food from plastic packaging materials.  They disrupt endocrine function.

The recent study:  Exposure to phthalates is associated with adverse birth outcomes such as decreased gestational age and increased risk of preterm birth.

Conclusion: “The $1·63–8·14 billion costs of preterm birth described here …add to the disease burden and costs of plastic in the USA, which were recently estimated to be $250 billion annually….Our findings also support individual behavioural interventions to reduce exposure. These include choosing personal care products labelled to be free of phthalates, and replacement of packaged foods with fresh foods.


What this is: a plant growth regulator used on wheat, oats, and barley to decrease stem height, making the plants easier to harvest.

Why it’s a worry: Chlormequat has been linked to reduced fertility, altered fetal growth, and delayed puberty in animals.

The recent study: The headline: 80% of Americans test positive for chemical found in Cheerios, Quaker Oats that may cause infertility, delayed puberty.   The study found increasing amounts of this chemical in food and urine samples.

Conclusion: “These findings and chlormequat toxicity data raise concerns about current exposure levels, and warrant more expansive toxicity testing, food monitoring, and epidemiological studies.”

Comment: These are only three of all the chemicals out there that get into our food and appear in our bodies.  Yes, more research is needed to find out just how harmful they are.  But I see no evidence that they are good for us.  I think we need:

  • Much greater urgency and attention from FDA and EPA on getting these chemicals out of the food supply
  • More information about how to avoid the chemicals, especially in pregnant women and young children
  • Coalition advocacy for more stringent regulation (the Environmental Working Group is doing a great job but cannot do this alone)
Feb 19 2024

Industry-sponsored study of the week: a menstruation supplement

The study:  Lactobacillus paragasseri OLL2809 Improves Premenstrual Psychological Symptoms in Healthy Women: A Randomized, Double-Blind, Placebo-Controlled Study. Nutrients. 2023; 15(23):4985.

Methods: “This study employed a randomized, placebo-controlled, double-blind, parallel-group design to assess the efficacy of continuous ingestion of OLL2809 [the supplement] for managing menstrual symptoms in healthy women.”

Conclusion: “This study suggests that the consumption of OLL2809 over three menstrual cycles in healthy women can alleviate premenstrual ‘decline in activity’ and ‘irritability’, thereby indicating the potential of OLL2809 to enhance women’s QOL [Quality of Life].

Conflicts of Interest:  All authors are employees of Meiji Co., Ltd. The company funded this research. All authors are the inventors of pending patent (Japanese Patent Application No. 2023-182470).

Comment: The supplement is a bacterial probiotic.  The authors are employed by its maker and hold a patent for it, which they fully disclose.  Just as a reminder, industry-funded studies tend to come out with results favoring the sponsor’s interest, as is certainly the case here.

I need to say something about the journal, Nutrients, since many of the studies I post on industry-funded Mondays appear in that journal.  It charges authors €2900 (about $3300) to publish their articles.  It’s an open-access journal, so all authors have to pay to publish their articles.  More rigorous journals do not usually require page charges from authors unless they want open access.  Nutrients gives me the impression of pay to play.

Feb 16 2024

Weekend reading: food animal markets and disease transmission

I thought this 2023 report was well worth a look.


Microbial diseases of animals can be transmitted to humans, and vice versa (witness COVID-19 in mink and zoo animals).  Some of these have led to serious epidemics.  Lots of people are worried that Confined Animal Feeding Operations could easily become the source of new and deadly forms of influenza.

But what interested me in this report is that industrial farm animal production is one of a great many sources of potential infectious disease transmission.

A few of the many examples, some well known to have caused Salmonella infections:

  • Pets
  • Hunted animals
  • Production of bat guano and coyote urine (who knew?)
  • Backyard chickens
  • Crocodile farming
  • Petting zoos
  • Research animals

The report is cautious on the topic of the origin of COVID-19:

At the time of this writing, scientists continue to debate the precise origins of the virus but there is no question as to the impact it has had. Indeed, few aspects of daily life in the United States remain untouched.

The implication is clear.  We need much better monitoring of animal markets for pathogens.

The United States has no comprehensive strategy in place to address the threat of zoonotic disease. There are serious regulatory deficiencies across almost every animal industry. Large information gaps exist, and disease can seep between these cracks.

Lots to learn here and think about here.

Feb 15 2024

Does cell-cultured meat have a future? This is not the moment.

I subscribe to AgFunder News, not least because I so admire Elaine Watson’s reporting on the food industry.

I was particularly interested in her detailed account of investment in cultured meat and seafood startups: ​Preliminary AgFunder data point to 78% decline in cultivated meat funding in 2023; investors blame ‘general risk aversion.’

Here’s what’s happening:

Funding may have dropped, but investors put nearly $200 million into this technology in 2023.  That isn’t nothing.

Watson reviews the reasons for the funding decline:

  • High interest rates
  • Risk aversion
  • Too many companies seeking investment
  • Scalability of the product
  • Cost parity
  • Lack of government funding

Cultivated meat is not yet on the market.  It’s hard to assess it or predict its future without tasting it.  I’m trying to keep an open mind.

For a deep dive into what’s happening in this industry, see Joe Fassler’s excellent piece in the New York Times: Opinion | The Revolution That Died on Its Way to Dinner.

His point:  Cell-cultured meat is “an escape hatch for humankind’s excesses.”

For all its terrifying urgency, climate change is an invitation — to reinvent our economies, to rethink consumption, to redraw our relationships to nature and to one another. Cultivated meat was an excuse to shirk that hard, necessary work. The idea sounded futuristic, but its appeal was all about nostalgia, a way to pretend that things will go on as they always have, that nothing really needs to change. It was magical climate thinking, a delicious delusion.

In the course of his investigations, Fassler got to taste cell-cultured chicken.  This did not make him optimistic about its future.

As I said, I’m trying to stay open minded.  I suspect this story is not over yet.  Stay tuned.

Feb 14 2024

The World Health Organization: Health Taxes (e.g., on Sugar-Sweetened Beverages)

The UN’s World Health Organization (WHO) has long led efforts to tax unhealthy products, starting with tobacco.

WHO describes its health tax efforts here.

It recently issued Global report on the use of sugar-sweetened beverage taxes, 2023.

The report finds that 108 countries have some kind of tax on sugar-sweetened beverages.

But, it finds

Less than a quarter of countries surveyed account for sugar content when they impose taxes on these non-alcoholic beverage products. Countries with a sufficiently strong tax administrative capacity are encouraged to tax beverages based on sugar content, as it can encourage consumers to substitute with alternatives that have lower sugar content as well as incentivize the industry to reformulate beverages to contain less sugar.

One of its major overall findings:

Among its conclusions are these:

  • Existing taxes on SSBs could be further leveraged to decrease affordability and thereby reduce consumption. While other perspectives and competing factors have to be accounted for when designing taxation policies, the protection of health should be a key consideration, particularly considering the health and economic burden associated with obesity and diet-related NCDs.
  • This report concludes that excise taxes on SSBs are not currently being used to their fullest potential. Improving tax policy and increasing taxes so that SSBs become less affordable should be pursued more systematically by countries in order to effectively reduce consumption and prevent and control diet-related NCDs, including obesity and dental caries.

Here’s the evidence.  Get to work!