by Marion Nestle

Currently browsing posts about: Let’s Ask Marion

Dec 10 2010

Food is political? Indeed it is.

Every now and then, I enjoy answering questions posed by Eating Liberally’s Kerry Trueman.  Here’s one for today.

Let’s Ask Marion: How Did Junk Food and Obesity Become a Red State/Blue State Debate?

(With a click of her mouse, Kerry Trueman, aka kat, corners Dr. Marion Nestle, NYU professor of nutrition and author of Feed Your Pet Right, Pet Food Politics, What to Eat, Food Politics, and Safe Food):

kat: The “agri-culture war” that’s long been simmering is coming to a boil now, as recently noted in The Washington Post, The Daily Dish, and elsewhere in the blogosphere.

The Palin/Beck/Limbaugh axis of egos is vigorously defending junk food, lamenting the passage of the food safety bill, and decrying all efforts to address our obesity epidemic, even as David Frum, a rare voice of reason (sometimes) on the right, tells CNN that obesity poses a greater threat to our national security than, say, openly gay soldiers.

You yourself are under fire yet again (sigh) from those uber-astroturfers at the Center For Consumer Freedom for having the audacity to question whether our cherished principle of free speech entitles Big Food to emblazon the labels of its edible food-like substances with Big Lies (i.e. dubious, unproven health claims).

Why do you think that the issues of junk food and obesity have become so incredibly politicized?

Dr. Nestle: Politicized? Of course they are politicized. Junk food and obesity are key indicators of political divisions in our society. For starters, junk food is cheap and obesity is more common among low-income populations. So right away we are into divisive issues of income inequality and class and, therefore, who pays for what and which sectors of society get government handouts.

The minute we start talking about small farms, organic production, local food, and sustainable agriculture, we are really talking about changing our food system to accommodate a broader range of players and to become more democratic. Just think of who wins and who loses if $20 billion in annual agricultural subsidies go to small, organic vegetable producers who are part of their communities rather than to large agricultural producers who do not live anywhere near their corn and soybeans.

The issue at stake is who gets to decide how food is grown and what people eat. For as long as I can remember, big agriculture and big food were in control, in close partnership with congressional agricultural committees and the USDA. Today, the food movement–democracy in action, if you will–is challenging their authority and power. No wonder defenders of the status quo don’t like the challenge. It is only to be expected that they are fighting back.

I see the intensity of the debate (and, alas, the personal attacks) as a clear sign that the movement is making headway. The system is clearly changing. It has to change if we are to address obesity, climate change, and the other unsustainable aspects of our present ways of doing food business.

Anyone who is working to reduce income inequity and to make healthier food available to every American has to expect to encounter the methods corporations always use to fight critics: personal attacks, claims of junk science, invocation of personal responsibility, cooptation, and plenty of behind-the-scenes lobbying.

Telling truth to power has never been popular. But I’m convinced it’s worth doing.

Nov 7 2010

Let’s Ask Marion Nestle: Could The USDA Get Any Cheesier?

Eating Liberally’s kat (a.k.a. Kerry Trueman) asks one of her inimitable “Ask Marion” questions, this one about Michael Moss’s blockbuster story in today’s New York Times about dairy lobbying.

*

KT: Sunday’s New York Times has a disturbing exposé by Michael Moss about the USDA’s efforts to aid the dairy industry by encouraging excessive cheese consumption. Can the USDA ever reconcile its two mandates? On the one hand, the USDA has the task of tackling the obesity epidemic by encouraging healthier eating habits. Yet it must also promote the interests of U.S. agriculture. As Moss documents so well, these two missions are in total conflict.

Dr. Nestle: And so they are, have been, and will be until public outrage causes some changes in Washington. In two of my books, Food Politics and What to Eat, I wrote about how dairy lobbying groups, aided and abetted by the
USDA, convinced nutritionists that dairy foods were equivalent to essential nutrients and the only reliable source of dietary calcium, when they are really just another food group and one high in saturated fat, at that.

The USDA is still at it. As Michael Moss notes:

The department acknowledged that cheese is high in saturated fat, but said that lower milk consumption had made cheese an important source of calcium. ‘When eaten in moderation and with attention to portion size, cheese can fit into a low-fat, healthy diet,’ the department said.

So let’s talk about “moderation,” a word that I find hard to use without irony. The pizza illustrated in Michael Moss’s article is described as a “thin-crust medium pie.” The diameter is not given, but one-fourth of the pie contains 430 calories, 12 grams of saturated fat (20 is the daily recommended upper limit), and 990 mg sodium (the upper limit is 2,300).

Who eats one-quarter of a pizza? Not anyone I know. So double all this if you share it with a friend. If you eat the whole thing–and why do I think that plenty of Domino Pizza customers do?–you are consuming more than 1700 calories, nearly 4,000 mg sodium (that’s 10 grams of salt, by the way), and 48 grams of saturated fat. This is enough to make any nutritionist run screaming from the room.

So why is USDA in bed with dairy lobbying groups? That’s its job. From its beginnings in the 1860s, USDA’s role was to promote U.S. agricultural production and sales, with the full support of what was then a largely agricultural Congress. Only in the 1970s, did USDA pick up all those pesky food assistance programs and capture the “lead federal agency” role in providing dietary advice to the public.

Much of Food Politics is devoted to describing the USDA’s severe conflict of interest in developing dietary advice to “eat less” of basic agricultural commodities. As Times reporter Marian Burros put it in one of her articles about the fights over the 1992 Pyramid, which visually suggested eating less meat and dairy, “the foxes are
guarding the henhouse.”

This is what Mrs. Obama is up against in her efforts to reduce childhood obesity and bring healthier foods into America’s inner cities.

How to change this system? One possibility might be to move dietary guidance into a more independent federal agency, NIH or CDC for example. Another might be to recognize the ways in which corporate lobbyists corrupt our food system and do something about election campaign laws.

A pipe dream? Maybe, but I never thought I’d live to see the editors of the New York Times consider an article about USDA checkoff programs to be front-page news, and in the right-hand column yet, marking it as the most important news story of the day.

Oct 27 2010

Eating Liberally asks Marion: Is stealth the way to healthy eating for kids?

Every now and then, Kerry Trueman tosses a “Let’s Ask Marion” question at me, and these are invariably a challenge.  Today’s: “Is stealth the way to healthy eating for kids?”

(With a click of her mouse, Eating Liberally’s Kerry Trueman, aka kat, corners Dr. Marion Nestle, NYU professor of nutrition and author of Feed Your Pet Right, Pet Food Politics, What to Eat, Food Politics, and Safe Food):

KT: NPR’s Morning Edition ran a story today about “stealth” strategies that some schools and researchers are employing to get kids to eat healthier foods–for example, by sneaking pureed vegetables into a line of cafeteria foods being marketed under the name “Hidden Healthies.”

But doesn’t this approach reinforce the perception kids have that vegetables taste lousy? David Just, co-director of the Cornell Center for Behavioral Economics in Child Nutrition, pointed out that “Taste is a suggestion more than anything else. If you think something is going to taste really good — if you’ve been told by others that it tastes good — you build that into your head when you eat it.”

A researcher who’s experimenting with enhanced cafeteria lighting to make healthy foods appear more appealing to kids told NPR, “We got to figure out some things so that the last thing in the world they know is that we’re trying to get them to eat well.”

We know that kids (and plenty of grown-ups!) turn up their noses at foods that are presented to them as healthy. Kids have also come to expect that their preferences should be catered to, which is why carrot and apple growers have begun packaging their products to resemble snack foods like potato chips.

In short, veggies have a serious pr problem. Do these strategies strike you as a good solution?

Dr. Nestle: Oh no! Not stealth again. I thought we were done with that in 2007 when we had to live through the plagiarism fight between Jessica Seinfeld’s Deceptively Delicious, and Missy Lapine’s Sneaky Chef, both of them pushing stealth strategies.

I remember being given hamburgers as a kid and how betrayed and condescended to I felt when they turned out to contain ground spinach—a vegetable I detested at the time but now think is terrific, especially when young and tender. Kids’ tastes do change, and should be encouraged in an honest way.

That is why I am so intrigued by the approach shown in the New York Times “Lunch Line Redesign” op-ed last week. Check out the way that Brian Wansink and his colleagues suggest redesigning lunch lines. These do nothing draconian or deceitful. Instead, they gently nudge kids to made healthier choices on their own.

How? By doing such things as putting salads near the cash register, using bowls instead of trays, and describing the foods more attractively. My favorite of these strategies is simply to ask the kids whether they would like a salad. All of these increase kids’ selection of healthier food choices.

But will the kids eat the foods? Of course they will. From my observations of school meals, the single most important indicator of whether the kids are eating healthfully is if the school food service people know their names and talk to them about what they are choosing. It helps a lot if the food tastes good, but kids respond to adults who care about what they eat.

When I hear parents say that the kids won’t eat anything healthy, I suspect that I’m talking to someone who isn’t willing to take adult responsibility for what kids eat and finds it easier to be stealthy than direct. Kids need to trust the adults in their lives and food should be used to instill trust, not destroy it.

This exchange appeared on the Huffington Post website on October 25 and elicited a response from Missy Chase Lapine, the original Sneaky Chef herself (reproduced with permission):

Dear Dr. Nestle,

I understand you had a bad experience with sneaky spinach as a child, but I respectfully disagree with your position that sneaking healthy food in kids’ meals is a bad idea. As the author of the Sneaky Chef cookbooks, I receive thousands of testimonials from parents to the contrary. They are thrilled that their kids are finally eating veggies–and most of the kids are in on the secret and love it.

The reason sneaking is needed is highlighted in the recent CDC report showing that all of the efforts and billions of dollars spent on nutrition education has failed. Everyone now knows that they SHOULD eat their veggies. The problem is HOW to get them to do it. Teaching alone is conclusively insufficient–we need to sneak and teach. They work hand in hand.

Sneaking veggies gives people an easy way to experience the benefits of eating veggies, yet lets them enjoy their favorite foods, like spaghetti and meatballs–-only now they’re loaded with spinach, broccoli, peas, wheat germ and cauliflower. This direct experience opens the door to learning.

Parents from around the world write me letters like this:

“Every time I use one of your healthy (and sneaky) tips or wonderful recipes, I just want to scream with joy because they eat it.” –Mindi B., TX

The bottom line is: combining “sneaking and teaching” works for everyone.

Respectfully,
Missy Chase Lapine, The Sneaky Chef

Not exactly everyone, if I may respectfully submit.  But I’m glad she wrote.  OK, readers: opinions, please!

Oct 15 2010

Eating Liberally: What’s up with Walmart?

Every now and then I answer questions from Eating Liberally’s Kerry Trueman (kat).  Today’s is about Walmart’s sustainability initiatives.

Let’s Ask Marion Nestle: Is Wal-Mart’s Sustainability Strategy For Real?

Submitted by KAT on Fri, 10/15/2010 – 12:20pm.

(With a click of her mouse, EatingLiberally’s Kerry Trueman corners Dr. Marion Nestle, NYU professor of nutrition and author of Pet Food Politics, What to Eat and Food Politics🙂

KT: Why do you think Wal-Mart has decided to throw its colossal weight behind sustainable agriculture, both domestically and globally, in such a seemingly significant way? Is it a strategic pr move, a better-for-the-bottom-line calculus, or a bit of both? Is it too good to be true?

Dr. Nestle: I, of course, am a skeptic. Of course Wal-Mart wants to get into the business of sustainably and locally grown food. Wal-Mart is the largest grocery chain in the world, the 800-pound gorilla in the industry. It can demand whatever it wants from its suppliers, and at the lowest possible cost.

With these new initiatives, Wal-Mart suppliers will have to figure out ways to produce foods sustainably–without increasing the cost to Wal-Mart. So this move costs Wal-Mart nothing. It gains plenty. This move should recruit supporters of sustainable and locally grown food and induce them to overlook the company’s retrogressive labor practices.

Will these initiatives help farmers? Maybe, but only if Wal-Mart pays them decently for what they produce. As for Wal-Mart employees? Ditto. But I want to wait and see how it all plays out before making a final judgment.

This is also posted on Huffington Post.

And the New York Times has a story on it.

Apr 12 2010

Eating Liberally: A vote for Jamie Oliver

In part in response to the outpouring of hate mail about Jamie Oliver’s “food revolution,” Kerry Trueman has tossed in another question from Eating Liberally:

KT: The last two episodes of Jamie Oliver’s Food Revolution have yet to air, but folks are already assessing whether Oliver’s attempt to launch a culinary coup in the community of Huntington, West Virginia was a success or a failure. Jamie’s ‘people’ consulted you at the start of this project. Did they heed your advice? If it had been your show, how would you have gone in and done it?

Dr. Nestle: I don’t watch much TV (technophobe that I am, I have yet to figure out how to turn it on without resorting to instructions), but I would not miss the Jamie Oliver show. I first heard about it from students in my NYU Food Ethics class. They made it clear that the show was well worth watching by anyone who cares about how America eats.

I was dubious. When I met with Jamie Oliver’s staff in London last summer—an information session, not a consult—I thought the project sounded kind of arrogant but knowing nothing about reality television, I was curious to see how it would go.

Splendidly, I would say. What I hadn’t realized is how much fun this guy is, and how gutsy. OK, he has annoying Briticisms. OK, a lot of this is about him.

But he wants everyone to learn to cook healthy food and have fun doing it. He wants school lunches to be better. He wants people to be healthier. Along the way, he is exposing deep flaws in the federal school meal programs and in the kinds of foods that many people eat without giving what they eat much thought. Sounds good to me.

I’m kind of stunned by the hostility the programs have evoked among people I would have expected to support these goals. My teaching assistant, Maya Joseph, a doctoral student at the New School, categorized the criticisms for me:

• the wounded ego messages (how dare Jamie Oliver not mention MY work!!)

• the ugly foreigner message (how dare Jamie tell AMERICANS what to eat!)

• the outraged sensitivity messages (how dare Jamie Oliver not take account of X,Y, and Z when he so rudely ballooned into this town).

Maya adds: “I would have thought that it would be obvious…that this is (a) a TV show! and (b) great publicity for our food system tragedies.”

Me too. Or, as food consultant Kate Adamick points out in the first of  her ongoing reviews on the Atlantic Food Channel, “the revolution will be televised.”

This is reality TV aimed at an important public health problem. Is it theater, or is something bigger going on?

From the number of people I know who are watching it and talking about it, I’m voting for bigger. I think it’s useful for people to know that kids at school think it’s normal to eat pizza for breakfast, French fries for lunch, and nothing with a knife and fork. And they have no idea what a tomato or a potato looks like. People need to know that schools and USDA regulations allow these things to happen. They need to know that better food costs more.

From my observations of school food over the years, getting decent food into schools requires:

•  A principal who cares about what kids eat

•  Teachers who care about what kids eat

•  Parents who care about what kids eat

•  Food service personnel who not only care what the kids eat, but also know the kids’ names.

Jamie Oliver is trying to reach all of these people, and more.

I think the programs have much to teach about the reality of school food and what it will take to fix it. The New York Times reviewer, also dubious at first, ended his review with this comment:

One thing noticeably absent from the first two episodes is a discussion of any role the American food industry and its lobbyists might play in the makeup of school lunches and in the formulation of the guidelines set for them by the Agriculture Department. If Mr. Oliver wants a real food revolution, it can’t happen just in Huntington.

Yes! And these programs could help.

Finally, let me comment on the West Virginia University’s evaluation. This survey found that the kids didn’t like Oliver’s meals (but did try them). The staff didn’t like the increased work. Everything cost more.

Once again, this is TV, not a real school intervention. Real ones start at the beginning of a semester, not in the middle, and are about food, not entertainment. They also do not leave it up to the kids to decide what to eat.

As I said in one of my blog posts on these programs, I want to know what happens in schools and in the community after the TV crews are gone. If the programs are any indication, I think real changes will take place in the minds, hearts, and stomachs of at least some participants and viewers. Whether researchers can figure out how to capture those changes is another matter.

Watch them. And get your kids to watch with you.

Addition April 21: Jane Black of the Washington Post has done a thorough evaluation of the TV series accompanied by notes on her  personal interview with Jamie Oliver.   She thinks he did some good.  Me too.

Apr 7 2010

Eating Liberally: The Child Nutrition Act

I keep getting asked what I think about the Child Nutrition Act wending its way through Congress.  Kerry Trueman of Eating Liberally posed this as a Q and A:

Let’s Ask Marion: Does The USDA Stand for Ultra Silly Dietary Agenda?

(With a click of her mouse, EatingLiberally’s kat corners Dr. Marion Nestle, NYU professor of nutrition and author of Pet Food Politics, What to Eat and Food Politics🙂

KT: Monday’s New York Times had an editorial supporting the reauthorization of the Child Nutrition Act, a bill that would give the US Agriculture Department “new powers to set nutritional standards for any food sold on school grounds, particularly junk foods that contribute to obesity.”

The current standards leave a lot to be desired, as Jamie Oliver’s Food Revolution has revealed. In the first episode, Jamie stood accused of shortchanging the kids on carbohydrates because he omitted the bread from a meal that already included rice.

Last Friday, in episode three, Jamie found himself charged with the violation of “insufficient vegetables,” despite the fact that his noodle-based entree featured seven different vegetables. The remedy? Add a bunch of french fries to the meal to meet the veggie quota.

How did the USDA’s school lunch standards ever get so nutritionally nutty? Would passage of the CNA support the wholesome, made-from-scratch meals that Jamie Oliver’s trying to bring back to our cafeterias?

Dr. Nestle: You are asking about the history of the USDA’s school lunch program? Nothing could be more complicated or arcane. Fortunately, two new books take this on: Susan Levine’s School Lunch Politics: The Surprising History of America’s Favorite Welfare Program (Princeton, 2010), and Janet Poppendieck’s Free for All: Fixing School Food in America (California, 2010).

I used Poppendieck’s book in my Food Ethics class at NYU this semester and reading it while watching Jamie Oliver’s programs was a lot of fun. Yes, Oliver is doing reality television but no, he’s not exaggerating. If you find this difficult to believe, read Poppendieck’s book or take a quick look at Kate Adamick’s review of Oliver’s Food Revolution on the Atlantic Food Channel.

As Levine and Poppendieck explain, and as I discussed in Food Politics (California, 2007), school lunches started out as a way to dispose of surplus agricultural commodities by feeding hungry kids. Over the years, it got caught up in a series of “wars”–first on poverty, hunger, and malnutrition and later on welfare and obesity.

The politics of school lunch, and of the CNA in particular, have always reflected the tension inherent in any welfare program, in this case feeding the poor vs. inducing dependency and overspending. In recent years, as obesity became much more of a public health problem than malnutrition, the politics came to reflect the tensions between commercial interests and those of nutrition reformers. Congress is always involved as it endlessly tinkers with the rules for “competitive foods”–the sodas and snacks sold in competition with federally supported school meals.

Competitive foods put schools in a dilemma and in conflict of interest. They make money from competitive foods to help support the school lunch program. But sodas and snacks undermine participation in school meals programs.

Poppendieck points out that the result is a mess that leaves financially strapped school districts with few choices. It’s not that the “lunch ladies” (you have to love Jamie Oliver’s term) don’t know how to make decent meals. It’s that they are up against inadequate funding and equipment, and impossible nutrition standards that can be met most easily by commercial products like Uncrustables that are designed to meet USDA standards. My favorite example contains 51 ingredients (my rule is “no more than five”).  See Note below.

Inadequate funding is a big consideration in the Child Nutrition Act. This act provides $4.5 billion over 10 years for school meals. Although this represents a 10-fold increase over previous (2004) funding, it works out to an additional measly six cents per meal–not nearly enough to solve school districts’ financial problems.

But–and this is a huge step forward–the act gives USDA the authority to set nutrition standards not only for foods sold in the cafeteria but also in vending machines and a la carte lines.

And the bill does a few other Very Good Things. It provides:

  • An estimated $1.2 billion over 10 years for meals at after-school programs, free meals to all students in schools with high poverty levels, and increased availability of meals during summer months.
  • An estimated $3.2 billion for establishing nutrition standards, strengthening local wellness policies, and increasing reimbursement rates.
  • Mandatory funding for schools to establish school gardens and buy foods from local sources.
  • Increased training for local food service personnel.
  • Automatic enrollment of foster children for free school meals.

As for the pesky nutrition standards: the bill expects the USDA to revise them according to the recent report of the Institute of Medicine (IOM), School Meals: Building Blocks for Health Children. This report recommended a conversion to food-based, rather than nutrient-based, standards along with increases in the amount and variety of fruits, vegetables, and whole grains and limits on calories, saturated fat, and sodium.

All of this makes the CNA well worth supporting. Is it perfect? Of course not. But it is a good first step to making big improvements eventually. In the meantime, plenty of schools are already doing great work and more are joining the food revolution one meal at a time. These deserve all the help we can give them.

*NOTE: the label of this particular Uncrustable was sent to me by Daniel of Ithaca, who works in an upstate New York school district:

BREAD; ENRICHED UNBLEACHED FLOUR (WHEAT FLOUR, MALTED BARLEY FLOUR, NIACIN, REDUCED IRON, THIAMIN MONONITRATE, RIBOFLAVIN, FOLIC ACID), WATER, HIGH FRUCTOSE CORN SYRUP, YEAST, PARTIALLY HYDROGENATED SOYBEAN OIL AND/OR SOYBEAN OIL, CONTAINS 2% OR LESS OF: WHEAT GLUTEN, SALT, DOUGH CONDITIONERS (MAY CONTAIN ONE OR MORE OF: DIACETYL TARTARIC ACID ESTERS OF MONO AND DIGLYCERIDES [DATEM], MONO AND DIGLYCERIDES, ETHOXYLATED MONO AND DIGLYCERIDES, SODIUM STEAROYL LACTYLATE, CALCIUM PEROXIDE, ASCORBIC ACID, AZODICARBONAMIDE, L-CYSTEINE), YEAST NUTRIENTS (MAY CONTAIN ONE OR MORE OF: MONOCALCIUM PHOSPHATE, CALCIUM SULFATE, AMMONIUM SULFATE), CALCIUM PROPIONATE (MAINTAIN FRESHNESS), CORNSTARCH, ENZYMES (WITH WHEAT). PASTEURIZED PROCESS CHEESE SPREAD: CULTURED MILK AND SKIM MILK, WATER, WHEY (FROM MILK), SODIUM PHOSPHATE, SALT, CREAM (FROM MILK), CORN SYRUP, LACTIC ACID, SORBIC ACID (PRESERVATIVE), GUAR GUM, ARTIFICIAL COLOR, ENZYMES. BUTTER FLAVORED OIL: PARTIALLY HYDROGENATED SOYBEAN OIL, SALT, SOY LECITHIN, NATURAL AND ARTIFICAL FLAVORS (WITH MILK), VITAMIN A PALMITATE, BETA CAROTENE ADDED FOR COLOR.

Jan 17 2010

Eating Liberally asks about salt

The ever curious Kerry Trueman, Eating Liberally’s kat, wants to hear more about Bloomberg’s salt assault.  And well she might.  Today’s New York Times has a bunch of letters weighing in from all points of view.    Here’s how our conversation went:

(With a click of her mouse, EatingLiberally’s kat corners Dr. Marion Nestle, NYU professor of nutrition and author of Pet Food Politics, What to Eat and Food Politics🙂

Kat: New York City’s new initiative to persuade food manufacturers and restaurants to voluntarily reduce the salt in their foods by 25% over the next five years is eliciting the usual outrage from the “nanny state” naysayers, for whom excess salt consumption is yet another matter of personal responsibility.

But as you noted last Monday, “nearly 80% of salt in American diets is already in packaged and restaurant foods and if you eat them at all you have no choice about the amount of salt you are getting.” Many Americans consume more than double the daily recommended intake of sodium, contributing to thousands of deaths and billions in medical costs annually.

Mayor Bloomberg equates the food industry’s overuse of salt to such health hazards as asbestos. But Mark Kurlansky, author of Salt: A World History, insisted to WNYC’s Amy Eddings that this analogy is false because “we could reduce our salt intake on our own, if we wanted to.”

Technically, this is true, if you’re willing and able to eliminate packaged foods from your diet, stop eating out, and start cooking all your meals from scratch. Unfortunately, the percentage of folks who have the time, inclination, and resources to do this is roughly on a par with those who think that Wall Street’s robber barons earned those big bonuses.

The food industry maintains that it would gladly reduce the sodium in its products–and some are doing so surreptitiously–if only consumers conditioned to crave super salty foods would be more willing to accept reduced sodium products.

The “invisible hand” of the market can’t seem to let go of the salt shaker. Mayor Bloomberg’s proposal is a step in the right direction, but do you think it will achieve meaningful reductions, or will we ultimately end up having to regulate salt?

Dr. Nestle: I love nanny-state accusations. Whenever I hear them, I know either that food industry self-interest is involved or that the accuser really doesn’t understand that our food system already is government-regulated as can be. These kinds of actions are just tweaking of existing policy, in this case to promote better health.

At issue is the default. Right now, companies have free rein to add as much salt to their processed or prepared foods as they like. The makers of processed foods do focus-group testing to see how consumers like the taste of their products. They invariably find that below a certain level of salt–the “bliss” point—their study subjects say they don’t like it. Soups are a good example. A measly half-cup portion of the most popular Campbell’s soups contains 480 mg of sodium or more than a full gram of salt (4 grams to a teaspoon).

To someone like me who has been trying to reduce my salt intake for years, those soups taste like salt water. That’s because the taste of salt depends on how much you are eating. If you eat a lot, you need more to taste salty. If you are like me, practically all processed and restaurant foods taste unpleasantly salty.

So what to do? I say this is indeed a matter of personal choice and right now I don’t have one. If I want to eat out at all, I know I’m going to feel oversalted by the time I get home.

I want the default choice to be lower in salt. Nobody is stopping anyone from salting food. You don’t think your food tastes salty enough? Get out the salt shaker.

But let me make two other comments. One is that the amount of salt we eat is so far in excess of what we need that asking food makers and sellers to cut down can hardly make a dent in taste. A new Swedish study just out says that young men consume at least twice the salt they need and the authors are calling on government to require food makers to start cutting down.

And yes, the science is controversial and not everyone has blood pressure that goes through the roof when they eat something salty. But lots of people do. And almost everyone has blood pressure that goes up with age. As a population, we would be better off exposed to less salt in our diets.

Some food makers are already gradually cutting down on salt, but quietly so nobody notices. If every food company were required to do that, everyone would get used to a less salty taste and we all might be able to better appreciate the subtle tastes of food.

My guess is that Bloomberg has started a movement and we will be seeing much more effort to lower the salt intake of Americans. As I see it, this is about giving people a real choice about what they eat.

Correction, January 22:  Juli Mandel Sloves of Campbell Soup correctly points out that I am in error.  A serving of soup is 8 ounces, not 4, even though the label says that a serving is half a cup.  How come?  Because the can is to be diluted with another can of water, making it 21 ounces divided by 2.5 servings per can, or about 8 ounces.    Complicated, no?  But this means the sodium content is 480 mg per cup, not half cup, despite what the label says.   I apologize for the error.  But here is an excellent reason to redesign the Nutrition Facts label, alas.

Dec 22 2009

Eating Liberally: Are pets responsible for climate change?

It’s been quite a while since Eating Liberally’s kat had a question for me, but this one certainly got my attention.  My book about pet food with Malden Nesheim, Feed Your Pet Right, has just progressed past its second set of page-proof corrections and is slowly making its way to publication on May 11.  Here’s her question:

Let’s Ask Marion: Is Fido The New Hummer?

Submitted by KAT on Tue, 12/22/2009 – 8:13am.

(With a click of her mouse, EatingLiberally’s kat corners Dr. Marion Nestle, NYU professor of nutrition and author of Pet Food Politics, What to Eat and Food Politics.

Kat: Dog lovers are howling over a new book called Time to Eat the Dog: The Real Guide to Sustainable Living. The book claims that “the carbon pawprint of a pet dog is more than double that of a gas-guzzling sports utility vehicle,” according to a report from the Agence France Presse.

The book’s authors, Robert and Brenda Vale, sustainable living experts at Victoria University in Wellington, New Zealand, estimate that a medium-sized dog’s annual diet–about 360 pounds of meat and 200 pounds of grains–requires roughly double the resources it would take to drive an SUV 6,200 miles a year.

You’ve become an expert on the pet food industry in recent years with Pet Food Politics: The Chihuahua in the Coal Mine, and your upcoming book, Feed Your Pet Right. So, what’s your take on the Vales’ claims? Is Fido really the new Hummer?

Dr. Nestle: Since Mal Nesheim is my co-conspirator on Feed Your Pet Right, this response is from both of us. Hence, “we.”

We ordered this book through Amazon in the U.K. but it is taking its own sweet time getting here. So all we really know about what these authors say is what we read in the October 24 New Scientist, which not only reviewed the book (in an article titled, “How green is your pet”) but also ran an editorial that begins, “If you really want to make a sacrifice to sustainability, consider ditching your pet – its ecological footprint will shock you.”

Oh, please. We don’t think so for two reasons, one quantitative, one qualitative. First, the quantitative:

The New Scientist review says:

To measure the ecological paw, claw and fin-prints of the family pet, the Vales analysed the ingredients of common brands of pet food. They calculated, for example, that a medium-sized dog would consume 90 grams of meat and 156 grams of cereals daily in its recommended 300-gram portion of dried dog food. At its pre-dried weight, that equates to 450 grams of fresh meat and 260 grams of cereal. That means that over the course of a year, Fido wolfs down about 164 kilograms of meat and 95 kilograms of cereals.

We don’t really have all the facts at hand. We have not seen the book, we don’t know what assumptions the authors made, and we can’t be certain that the review quotes the book accurately. Still, we are puzzled by these figures.

By our estimates, an average dog does indeed need about 300 grams of dry dog food a day; this much provides close to 1,000 calories. Fresh meat supplies about 2 calories per gram, so 450 grams would yield about 900 calories. Cereals have less water so they are more caloric; they provide nearly 4 calories per gram. The 260 grams of cereals would provide nearly 1,000 calories. If New Scientist got it right, the authors of the book are overestimating the amount of food needed by dogs by a factor of two.

On the qualitative side: Most dogs don’t eat the same meat humans do. They eat meat by-products—the parts of food animals that we wouldn’t dream of eating. These are organs, intestines, scraps, cuttings, and other disgusting-to-humans animal parts.

We think pet food performs a huge public service. If pets didn’t eat all that stuff, we would have to find a means of getting rid of it: landfills, burning, fertilizer, or converting it to fuel, all of which have serious environmental consequences. If dogs and cats ate the same food we do, we estimate that just on the basis of calories, the 172 million dogs and cats in American would consume as much food as 42 million people.

But they don’t. They eat the by-products of human food production. If we want to do something to help reverse climate change, we should be worrying much more about the amount of meat that we ourselves are eating–and the amount of cereals we are growing to feed food animals–than blaming house pets for a problem that we created.