by Marion Nestle

Currently browsing posts about: Dietary-Guidelines

Oct 16 2009

World Food Day

Today is World Food Day and I am in Rome giving the 6th Annual George McGovern World Food Day lecture at the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO).  The lecture is sponsored by the U.S. Embassy.

World Food Day marks the founding of FAO on October 16, 1945.  I love the FAO motto: Fiat Panis (let there be bread).  Its job is to make sure the world gets fed adequately.

FAO has just released its 2009 edition of “The State of Food Insecurity in the World.”  It contains nothing but bad news: hunger is on the rise, the global economic crisis is making things worse, with people in developing countries hit hardest.

The George McGovern lecture is in honor of the former U.S. Senator (Dem-South Dakota) and presidential candidate who has had a distinguished history of anti-hunger efforts as director of the Food for Peace program, chair of the Senate Select Committee on Nutrition and Human Needs, and U.N. global ambassador on hunger.

I am most familiar with his work as chair of the Senate Select Committee from 1968-1977.   This committee greatly expanded food assistance programs and then developed the first federal guidelines for chronic disease prevention: Dietary Goals for the U.S. In Food Politics, I describe the work of this committee and the way it improved the safety net and transformed nutrition education in the United States.

It is a great honor to be giving a lecture in his honor.

Sep 26 2009

The Not-So-Smart Choices story continues…

We now have a piece mentioning the Smart Choices program in The Economist as well as a letter from Dr. Eileen Kennedy, the member of the Smart Choices program committee to whom the quotation about Froot Loops, “Better than a doughnut,” is attributed.

The Economist discusses the booming business of functional foods: “Consumers are swallowing such products, and the marketing claims that come with them.” It mentions the fuss over Smart Choices, but the best part is the caption to the illustration that comes with it.

It's practically spinach

It's practically spinach

And, I’ve been sent a copy of an e-mail letter to alumni from Dr. Eileen Kennedy, dean of the Friedman School of Nutrition Science and Policy at Tufts University, explaining her participation in the Smart Choices program:

Dear Friedman School Alumni,

There is an issue that has emerged as a result of a NY Times article that appeared in the business section on Sept 5, 2009. Since I believe I was grossly misquoted in the article and that the article does not accurately depict the Smart Choices program, I want to share with you some background on this program and my involvement.

In 2007, I was invited to join the Keystone Roundtable on Food and Nutrition. Keystone is a non-profit organization that brings individuals together around potentially controversial issues. The roundtable included health organizations, food companies, retailers, and academic researchers from a variety of U.S. universities. I was one of the academics who served pro bono on the roundtable. Initially, we met to discuss revisions to the FDA nutrition label. Ultimately, we decided to address the issue of Front of Pack Labels on food products. The final recommendations of the group were based on consensus science including the Dietary Guidelines for Americans, the FDA definition of healthy, WHO recommendations and the Institute of Medicine Scientific reports. The program that emerged from this meticulous process is called “The Smart Choices Program (SCP).” Food products that qualify as “better for you” get a check mark as well as disclosure of calories per serving and number of servings in a product.

I believe there are three major advantages to this program in addition to the rigorous scientific underpinnings.

First, the SCP is intended to improve food patterns at point of purchase – the super markets. To do this, food products are divided into 19 categories – based on research – that reflect how people buy food. All fruits and vegetables without additives automatically qualify.

Second – and a major plus – the program was tested prior to launch with consumers.

Finally, food companies who participate in the program have agreed to abandon their proprietary systems and adopt one system – the Smart Choices Program.

Thus, thousands of products using the SCP check mark will reach millions of consumers. It is a credit to the social responsibility of participating companies that because of the strict nutrition criteria, fewer of the individual food products will qualify for the Smart Choices Program.

As a non-industry board member, I have been targeted by negative emails, letters and even some phone calls. I regret that some of this hostility has been focused on the Friedman School and Tufts University and must note that I serve as an individual on the Smart Choices Program. Tufts University is not involved with it….

As nutritionists, we know that, in many ways, the science of nutrition is straight-forward. It is the translation of science into action that is often complex and can be contentious. Within our field, there are many opinions on how to improve the nutritional well-being of people worldwide. It is precisely at an academic institution like Tufts that we should have a respectful and open dialogue about these issues….For additional information, you may also want to go to www.smartchoicesprogram.com….

The letter gives me a chance to repeat a few points that I have made in previous posts (see Smart Choices, Scoring Systems) and on the general matter of corporate sponsorship of nutrition activities (tagged as Sponsorship).

First, this enterprise was paid for by participating companies to the tune of $50,000 each for a total of $1.67 million.  Social responsibility?  I don’t think so.  Companies usually get what they pay for.  Hence: Froot Loops.

Second, a comment on the research basis.  I have written extensively in Food Politics and in What to Eat about the influence of food companies on federal dietary guidelines and the compromises that result.  Even at its best, the process has to be impressionistic and cannot be either meticulous or rigorous.  The guidelines are meant to be generic advice for healthful eating.  They were never meant to be used – and cannot be used – as criteria for ranking processed foods as healthful.

The FDA standards for comparison to Daily Values on food labels are also worth a comment.  They were the basis of Hannaford supermarkets’ Guiding Stars program, which awards one, two, or three stars to foods that meet FDA-based criteria.  By those criteria, Froot Loops does not qualify for even one star.  If Smart Choices had relied on FDA criteria, such products would not be check marked.

Dr. Kennedy makes some excellent points in her letter and I particularly agree with one of them: nutritionists differ in opinion about how best to advise the public about diet and health.  Mine is that the Smart Choices program is a travesty and the sooner it disappears, the better.

September 29 update: The L.A. Times weighs in with a story (which quotes me).  It’s got another great comparison from a member of the Smart Choices committee:  “Cereal provides an array of nutrients and is a good breakfast…especially if the alternative is a sweet roll.”  My son, who saw the story, has this comment: “Hey! I think Froot Loops are a “Smart Choice.” After all, they have “froot,” don’t they? And maybe no nutritionist you know would recommend Froot Loops for breakfast, but what about for lunch or dinner?”

Nov 7 2008

Dietary guidelines committee: conflicts of interest

Oh no, not again!  Merrill Goozner of the Integrity in Science project at Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI) writes that six of the 13 members of the 2010 Dietary Guidelines committee, including the chair, get research support  or consulting fees from food or drug companies with vested interests in what the guidelines say.  CSPI had to dig up this information, as the sponsoring agencies did not disclose these potential conflicts of interest. 

Nov 1 2008

Dietary Guidelines: the process begins

According to Food Chemical News, November 3 (which, alas, only subscribers can read online), the first meeting of the 2010 Dietary Guidelines committee began with speeches from the agency sponsors.  FCN quotes Penelope Slade Royall, deputy assistant secretary of health in HHS’s Office of Disease Prevention and Health Promotion (an office in which I worked from 1986-88):

“even when the new guidelines are approved and released in 2010, there’s nothing the committee can do to change people’s behavior…There are very dedicated people across the country working on these [guidelines] and I don’t understand why we’re not more successful.”

Really?  I can make some guesses.  Why not start by making the guidelines clear, direct, and unambiguous?  How about “eat less sugar,” “eliminate sugary drinks,” “eat less fast food,” “eat less often,” and “eat smaller portions.”   Or just the mantra of What to Eat: “Eat less, move more, eat fruits, vegetables and whole grains, and don’t eat too much junk food.”

Oct 25 2008

Announcing the 2010 Dietary Guidelines Committee

The government must have announced the members of the committee that will develop the 2010 Dietary Guidelines for Americans, because the American Society of Nutrition (I am a member) has issued a press release congratulating the nine (of 13) appointees who are ASN members.  Who are the other four?  We will find out next week when the committee starts meeting.  Stephen Clapp interviewed me about the Guidelines for Food Chemical News (October 27).  Here’s my part of his article, subtitled, “Keep it simple, stupid!” 

“Not everyone is happy with the 2005 guidelines. Marion Nestle, a high-profile nutritionist who teaches at New York University, favors scrapping the current advice in favor of something much simpler. She served on the 1995 Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee, an experience she described in her book Food Politics. She hasn’t been invited back.

“I would hope for an enormous reversal of the last set of guidelines,” she told FCN. “They’re unteachable and incomprehensible. Buried in the 41 recommendations is the basic advice: eat less, move more, eat more fruits and vegetables and whole grains, and don’t eat too much junk food.

“The idea that this document is for policymakers is ridiculous,” she continued. “You could boil it down to a single recommendation: ‘Drink fewer sodas and juice drinks.'”

Nestle said in 1995 the advisory committee was told to interpret nutrition science for the public. In 2005 the panel was told to make “science-based” recommendations, she said, which she interprets as code for “We won’t let you say anything unless the science is incontrovertible.”

Basing the guidelines on Dietary Reference Intakes (DRIs) is a “huge mistake,” Nestle says, because the DRIs are “incomprehensible” and set too high for calcium and potassium, resulting in a recommendation to eat two or three servings of dairy products daily. “If the Dietary Guidelines have to be based on the DRIs, it’s too much food,” she says.

Nestle says nutrition science is unusually subject to interpretation and bias because it’s difficult to link specific nutrients to chronic diseases. “My biases are open,” she says. “Everyone else has biases, too, but they may not want to disclose them. The public is deeply confused — you should just give the best advice you can. Just take into consideration all the research available and don’t worry about the impact on one industry or another.”

Now wouldn’t it be useful if they took my advice?  I will be following this story with great interest.

Update 10/28: Here’s the USDA’s announcement of the full list of committee members.

Jun 12 2008

Canada’s Industry food guide!

I can’t resist passing along this anonymously sourced spoof of Canada’s “Eating Well with Canada’s Food Guide.” Try the “Eating not-so-well with the [Canadian] Industry’s Food Guide.” And thanks for Jennifer Falbe for sending and Yoni Freedhoff for posting.

Jun 5 2008

European Commission dietary recommendations: Fox guarding chickens?

I’d been hearing rumors about how the the European Commission is spending $20 million  to develop dietary recommendations and food standards that will apply to all EU member states.  I now have some confirmation of them through the British magazine, Private Eye (May 30, 2008).   The project, called EURRECA, will be conducted by a bunch of universities but the overall management is going to be through the European branch of the International Life Sciences Institute (ILSI), “a front for the food and bioscience industry.” ILSI is funded by Coca-Cola, McDonald’s, Bayer CropScience, and Monsanto, among other such entities.  So $20 million in taxpayer dollars will be  laundered through a food and agbiotech front group.  Private Eye says that it eagerly awaits “EURRECA’s no doubt scientifically rigorous and untirely unbiased conclusions.”

I could do this for a lot less than $20 million, but nobody asked me, alas.

Apr 15 2008

Want to work on the new Dietary Guidelines?

The USDA and Department of Health and Human Services are requesting nominations for the committee that will prepare the version of the Dietary Guidelines for Americans to be published in 2010. NutraIngredients.com points out that the committee’s first task is to decide whether the current guidelines need revision. That, of course, is a joke. What’s the point of appointing a committee if it doesn’t do anything. And in this case, the Dietary Guidelines badly need revision. What started out as a simple pamphlet with advice about healthy eating is now a 70-page textbook. The new committee will have some serious pruning to do. How to nominate someone to the committee? Both links explain.