by Marion Nestle

Currently browsing posts about: Fruits-and-vegetables

Jan 3 2012

Musing about organics leads me to the Farm Bill

Sales of organic foods continue to increase at a faster pace than sales of conventional foods.  This alone makes people suspicious of the organic enterprise.

Another reason is confusion about what organic production methods are, exactly.  If you are part of the food movement, you probably want your foods to be organic, local, seasonal, and sustainable.  You might also want them produced by farm workers who have decent wages and living conditions.

Unfortunately, these things do not necessarily go together.

  • Organic means crops grown without artificial pesticides, fertilizers, GMOs, irradiation, or sewage sludge, and animals raised without hormones or antibiotics.  Certified Organic methods follow specific rules established by USDA.
  • Local means foods grown or raised within a given radius that can range from a few to hundreds of miles (you have to ask).
  • Seasonal refers to food plants eaten when they are ripe (and not preserved or transported from where they were grown).
  • Sustainable means—at least by some definitions—that the nutrients removed from the soil by growing plants are replenished without artificial inputs.

That these are different is illustrated by a recent article in the New York Times about industrial organic production in Mexico.  The story makes it clear that organics do not have to be local, seasonal, sustainable, or produced by well paid workers.

While the original organic ideal was to eat only local, seasonal produce, shoppers who buy their organics at supermarkets, from Whole Foods to Walmart, expect to find tomatoes in December and are very sensitive to price. Both factors stoke the demand for imports.

Few areas in the United States can farm organic produce in the winter without resorting to energy-guzzling hothouses. In addition, American labor costs are high. Day laborers who come to pick tomatoes in this part of Baja make about $10 a day, nearly twice the local minimum wage. Tomato pickers in Florida may earn $80 a day in high season.

The cost issues are critical.  Dairy farms in general, and organic dairy farms in particular, are entirely dependent on the cost of feed for their animals, and the cost of organic feed has become almost prohibitively expensive.  This has caused organic dairy producers to cut back on production or go out of business.  As another New York Times article explains,

The main reason for the shortage is that the cost of organic grain and hay to feed cows has gone up sharply while the price that farmers receive for their milk has not.

While the shortage may be frustrating for consumers, it reveals a bitter truth for organic dairy farmers, who say they simply need to be paid more for their milk.

Why is the price of feed rising?  Simple answer: because 40% of feed corn grown in the United States is being used to produce biofuels.

Why do farmers grow corn for biofuels?  Because the government gives them tax credits and other subsidies to do so.

But in a small step in the right direction, the ethanol tax credit program was allowed to expire last week,”ending an era in which the federal government provided more than $20 billion in subsidies for use of the product.”

One person quoted in the article connected the dots:

Production of ethanol, with its use of pesticides and fertilizer and heavy industrial machinery, causes soil erosion and air and water pollution. And it means that less land is available for growing food, so food prices go up.

Organics do not exist in isolation.  Their production is connected to every other aspect of the food system.

Wouldn’t it be nice to have a food system that promoted organic, local, seasonal, sustainable agriculture and paid farm workers a living wage?

Wouldn’t it be nice if the 2012 Farm Bill supported that kind of a food system if not instead of than at least along side of the one we have now?

I will be watching to see what Congress does with the Farm Bill.  Stay tuned.

Aug 5 2011

Does it really cost more to buy healthy food?

I got several calls this week about a new study from the University of Washington arguing that because of the way foods are subsidized, it will cost everyone nearly $400 a year to follow the recommendations of the government’s MyPlate food guide

The Seattle group calculates the cost of food per calorie.  By this measure, the price of fruits and vegetables is exceedingly high compared to the cost of junk food.  Fruits and vegetables do not have many calories for their weight.

The Commerce department tracks the indexed price of foods.  Its data show that the indexed price of fresh produce increased by 40% ince 1980 whereas the price of sodas and processed foods has declined by 10-30%.  (The easiest place to see their charts is in New York Times articles from a couple of years ago.  Click here and also here).

USDA economists have produced a similar chart:

 

Other USDA economists, however, argue that price trends for fruits, vegetables, and junk foods are really no different, and that the data shown in the figure overstate the apparent difference.

Nevertheless, the Seattle paper got a lot of attention, and rightly so.  One of my calls was from David Freeman of CBS News who said he was hearing lots of complaints that the study promoted a “nanny state” because it blamed bad eating habits on the government.  My quotes:

“It’s a common misconception that food choices are solely a matter of personal responsibility,” Dr. Marion Nestle, professor of nutrition, food studies, and public health at New York University and an outspoken critic of the fast food industry, told CBS News. “People are hugely influenced by the price of food. If you don’t have any money and go into the store to buy some fresh fruits, you might decide that it’s cheaper to have a couple of fast food hamburgers.”

And those who can afford healthy food may lack the time or the necessary food-preparation skills, Dr. Nestle said.

Government-sponsored cooking classes and kitchen equipment may not be in the offing. But Dr. Monsivais and Dr. Nestle agreed that federal agriculture policies could do more to encourage healthy eating. For example, some of the federal farm subsidies now directed to producers of corn, soybeans, and other crops used to make fast and processed foods could be redirected to growers of fruits and vegetables.

“What’s the matter with that?” Dr. Nestle said. “I can’t think of a thing.”

Jun 14 2011

Environmental Working Group’s “dirty dozen”

The Environmental Working Group (EWG) has just published its 2011 guide to the most and least pesticide-laden fruits and vegetables.

The #1 “dirtiest”?  Apples.  The remedy?  Buy from the EWG “clean 15” list or buy organic.

The “dirty dozen” list, in order: Apples, Celery, Strawberries, Peaches, Spinach, Imported nectarines, Imported grapes, Sweet bell peppers, Potatoes, Domestic blueberries, Lettuce, Kale/collard greens.

The “clean 15” list of foods with the least pesticides: Onions, Sweet corn, Pineapples, Avocados, Asparagus, Sweet peas, Mangoes, Eggplant, Domestic cantaloupe, Kiwifruit, Cabbage, Watermelon, Sweet potatoes, Grapefruit, Mushrooms

How much should you worry about pesticides on foods?  As one reader asked,

Is it better to eat conventional fruits (cherries, berries and apples) and other veggies (peppers) that are on the “dirty” vegetable list or forego them altogether?

This is not an easy question to answer.  EWG recognizes that the science linking pesticides to health problems is limited (this is an understatement).  EWG bases its rankings on data published by USDA and FDA.  It considers:

  • Percent of samples tested with detectable pesticides
  • Percent of samples with two or more pesticides
  • Average number of pesticides found on a single sample
  • Average amount (level in parts per million) of all pesticides found
  • Maximum number of pesticides found on a single sample
  • Total number of pesticides found on the commodity

EWG explains that its

Shopper’s Guide is not built on a complex assessment of pesticide risks but instead reflects the overall pesticide loads of common fruits and vegetables. This approach best captures the uncertainties of the risks of pesticide exposure and gives shoppers confidence that when they follow the guide they are buying foods with consistently lower overall levels of pesticide contamination.

Most available research supports the health benefits of eating fruits and vegetables regardless of their pesticide loads.  Ken Cook, the president of EWG says:

We recommend that people eat healthy by eating more fruits and vegetables, whether conventional or organic,” says Ken Cook, president and founder of Environmental Working Group. “But people don’t want to eat pesticides with their produce if they don’t have to. And with EWG’s guide, they don’t.”

By EWG calculations, you can lower your pesticide intake by 92% if you avoid the dirty dozen.  No wonder.  How’s this for an observation: “Hot peppers had been treated with as many as 97 pesticides, followed by cucumbers (68) and greens (66).”  Who knew?

Where is the produce industry in all of this?  EWG reports that produce trade associations are working hand-in-glove with the pesticide industry to attempt to keep information about these chemicals out of the public eye.

I wish more research existed on the dose-response effects of pesticides and on their long-term effects on health, especially in children.  I cannot imagine that pesticides are good for health.  In high doses, they are demonstrably harmful to farm workers.

But what about the low doses on fruits and vegetables?  Here, the evidence for long-term harm is weak, uncertain, and unhelpful.

What to do?

On the personal side: if you want to avoid eating pesticides, you can stick with the EWG 15.  Washing produce before eating it is always a good idea even if it doesn’t get rid of all of the chemicals (USDA studies are done on washed produce).  When in doubt, buy organic.

As for the political, if ever there was a situation where more research was needed, this is it.  And isn’t it time for industrial food producers to find ways to use fewer pesticides?  Let the produce trade associations know that you don’t like their defense of potentially harmful chemicals and that you much prefer organic.

Addition, June 16: For anyone interested, here are the USDA’s pesticide announcements for the new data:

Press release

Consumer factsheet

Report executive summary


 

 

May 19 2011

Food politics, Barcelona style

A reader, Jeff Harpell, comments on my scheduled talk in Barcelona:

I lived in Barcelona last year and the year before….While they are becoming more influenced by American fast food, having both parents work, and buying more from one stop food markets, the lifestyle, social support systems, i.e., healthcare and eating habits still are very different from the USA

….I suspect that the Catalonians are concerned about their citizens’ heading down a path of bad eating habits and how to prevent them. Any thoughts to share?

Three first impressions:

1.  The tourist bureau on La Rambla gives out a free city map courtesy of McDonald’s.  The map helpfully identifies the location of all of the McDonald’s outlets in Barcelona, and its such a relief to know that you don’t have to go far to find one.  I counted at least 10.

2.  The Carrefour supermarket has a meat section unlike any supermarket meat section in the United States. Those unwrapped hams are not cheap (yes, that’s 79 Euros, nearly $140, but it’s a big ham).  Leaving the ham attached to the hoof is an interesting touch.  I can only imagine what the New York City health inspectors might say about them.

3.  The Boqueria open-air food market has the most beautiful cut fruit for sale—something like this would make getting those daily fruit servings a real treat.

More to come!

Dec 2 2010

The latest on the GM front: sugar beets and apples

I haven’t seem much comment on what’s happening with Center for Food Safety v. Vilsack, a suit to prevent planting of genetically modified (GM) sugar beets because USDA allowed them to be grown without filing an Environmental Impact Statement (EIS).

This is kind of after-the-fact because Monsanto’s GM sugar beets have been planted widely for the last five years and now comprise 95% of the sugar beet crop in the U.S.

As the Center for Food Safety explains,

The court outlined the many ways in which GE sugar beets could harm the environment and consumers, noting that containment efforts were insufficient and past contamination incidents were “too numerous” to allow the illegal crop to remain in the ground. In his court order, Judge White noted, “farmers and consumers would likely suffer harm from cross-contamination” between GE sugar beets and non-GE crops. He continued, “the legality of Defendants’ conduct does not even appear to be a close question,” noting that the government and Monsanto tried to circumvent his prior ruling, which made GE sugar beets illegal.

No surprise, Monsanto is appealing and is likely to be joined by the government in the appeal.  Food Safety News quotes a Monsanto spokesman:

With due respect, we believe the court’s action overlooked the factual evidence presented that no harm would be caused by these plantings, and is plainly inconsistent with the established law as recently announced by the U.S. Supreme Court,” said David Snively, general counsel for Monsanto, in a news release….The issues that will be appealed are important to all U.S. farmers who choose to plant biotech crops…We will spare no effort in challenging this ruling on the basis of flawed legal procedure and lack of consideration of important evidence.”

Food Safety News also reports that a Washington state apple grower has petitioned USDA to allow it to market a GM apple engineered to resist browning.

But wait.  I’m confused.  Isn’t the FDA supposed to be the agency that approves the planting of GM foods?

This sent me right to the FDA site that summarizes GM varieties that are permitted to be planted (“completed consultations“).  I see papayas and cantaloupe on the list, but not a single apple variety.

How can this company market a GM variety of apples if the FDA hasn’t approved it?  Can anyone explain what’s going on here?  Thanks.

Update December 3:  A judge in San Francisco ordered GM sugar beets planted on 256 acres to be destroyed.  USDA is appealing.  And now everyone is worried about sugar shortages.  Oh dear.

Nov 22 2010

Fruit and vegetable update

This must be the season for reports on eating fruit and vegetables (see November 11 post).  Now, the National Fruit & Vegetable Alliance (NFVA), a public-private partnership to promote greater intake of these foods, has issued a Report Card. Here’s the Executive Summary and the Full Report Card.

No surprise, but average fruit and vegetable consumption is still way below recommended levels.

  • Only 6% of individuals reach the target for vegetables
  • Only 8% achieve the target for fruit
  • Although food away from home accounts for a third of calorie intake, it accounts for only 11% of fruit and vegetable intake

Here are some of the Report Card grades:

  • An “A” goes to the WIC Fruit and Vegetable Vouchers program, which recently broadened the program to allow fruits and vegetables that previously were excluded.
  • A “C” goes to school food and restaurant menus, which are making only slight progress.
  • An”F” goes to the healthy food advertising category, since ads for healthier foods are decreasing.

USA Today has a story on this report, which also identifies the most popular of these foods.  In case you were wondering, the top four fruits are Apples,  Bananas,  Strawberries, and Grapes.  The top four vegetables, according to this survey, are Broccoli, Corn, Green beans, and Carrots (I’m not sure I believe this list).

And finally, New York City reports that its Food Stamp users received more than $200,000 in fresh produce coupons for farmers markets in 2010.  That, at least, sounds like genuine progress.

Nov 11 2010

Three reports: eat more fruits and vegetables

The Institute of Medicine (IOM) has just published a review and assessment of the nutritional needs of the populations served by the USDA’s Child and Adult Care Food Program (CACFP), with recommendations for revising the program’s meal requirements.

CACFP supports the nutrition and health of the nation’s most vulnerable individuals—more than 3 million infants and children and more than 114,000 impaired or older adults, primarily from low-income households. CACFP meals must meet regulations designed to ensure that participants receive high-quality, nutritious foods.

The IOM says that USDA should:

  • Fix the meal requirements to promote eating more fruits and vegetables,  whole grains, and foods that are lower in fat, sugar, and salt.
  • Offer training and technical assistance to providers.
  • Review and update the Meal Requirements to maintain consistency with current dietary guidance.

The Produce for Better Health Foundation, the non-profit educational arm of the fruit and vegetables industries, recently issued its 2010 State of the Plate Report.  The major findings:

  • Only 6% of individuals achieve their recommended target for vegetables; 8% achieve their recommended target for fruit in an average day.
  • Vegetable achievement levels (vs. targeted levels) follow a standard bell-shaped curve, with half of individuals consuming between 40-70% of their target. The picture is less favorable for fruit, however, as two-thirds don’t even consume half of their recommended number of cups of fruit.
  • Children under the age of 12 and females 55 and older are most likely to achieve their fruit target. Males ages 55 and older, teens, and children under the age of 6 are most likely to achieve their vegetable target.The average person consumes 1.8 cups of fruits and vegetables per day or about 660 cups annually. Vegetables account for 60% of this average, while fruit represents 40%.
  • Per capita fruit and vegetable consumption (in cups) has remained fairly stable overall during the past 5 years….Berries, apple juice, and bananas have all shown growth since 2004.
  • Several groups have increased their fruit consumption by at least 5% since 2004. These include children ages 2-12, males 18-34, and females 18-54.
  • Older adults are eating fewer fruits and vegetables compared to just 5 years ago. Men and women aged 65 and over have decreased their intake nearly 10% vs. 2004 levels.

The Produce for Better Health Foundation’s 2010 GAP Analysis,  correlates the gap between consumption and recommendations to the ways in which USDA funding priorities ignore fruits and vegetables.  The report is hard to read and goes on and on, but its thrust is understandable.

The Foundation wants the USDA to spend a greater proportion of its dollars on fruits and vegetables, rather than on meat and dairy foods. USDA’s current allocations for subsidies look like this:

  • Meat: 54.7%
  • Grains (which mostly go to feed animals): 18.0%
  • Dairy (non-butter): 11.4%
  • Fats and oils: 6.2%
  • Fruits and vegetables: 9.8%

These reports aim to align agricultural policy with health policy, and about time too.

Sep 11 2010

The latest in marketing genius: “Baby” Carrots

Eat them like junk food! That’s the slogan of the new, over-the-top advertising campaign for “baby” carrots. I put “baby” in quotes because they aren’t.

I hate to be the one to break this to you but baby carrots are plain old ordinary adult carrots, cut and scraped into baby-size pieces.

Mind you, I’m a nutritionist and we do love carrots. And the CDC says only about one-quarter of Americans eat three servings of vegetables a day.

But $25 million to sell them on the basis of sex (I’m not kidding) or, violence (sigh)?

Well, at least they aren’t marketing these to kids.  For that, we have to go back a few years to the Sponge Bob “baby” carrots of 2006 or so (see below).  I haven’t seen those packages lately.  Guess that idea didn’t work.

Will this new campaign work any better?

[Thanks to Michael Bulger for sending the links.]