by Marion Nestle

Currently browsing posts about: Let’s Ask Marion

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.

May 7 2009

Oprah, KFC, free advertising, oh my!

This week, Eating Liberally’s kat wants to know what I think about Oprah’s free pass to KFC for adding grilled chicken to its fast food menu.  Here’s what I told her.  The moral: watch out for health auras!

Apr 27 2009

Swine flu, CAFO’s, Smithfield, China: connecting the dots

Eating Liberally’s ever curious kat connects the dots between the current swine flu crisis (getting worse by the minute) and China’s interest in buying America’s largest pork producer, Smithfield Foods.  She wonders what I think about all that.  See the latest Ask Marion: “Who needs bioterrorism when we’ve got manure lagoons.”

April 29 update: Here is Grain’s report on these connections.

Apr 21 2009

The latest “Let’s Ask Marion”

This time, Eating Liberally’s kat wants to know how come there isn’t a bigger public outcry about all the food safety scandals.  If you’ve been reading these posts, you probably can guess how I’ve answered her question, but here’s what I told her.

Mar 22 2009

Food marketing: cartoons, scholarship, and action

First, the cartoons: this week’s question from Eating Liberally’s kat has to do with whether it makes sense to put cartoon characters on eggs or, for that matter, fruits and vegetables.  I vote no, of course, and the illustrations alone explain why.

Next, the scholarship: The latest volume of Annual Reviews of Public Health contains excellent reviews of studies of the influence of the food marketing environment on child and adult health.

Sara Bleich et al explain why obesity has become so common in the developed world.

Kelly Brownell’s group reviews the effects of food marketing on childhood obesity.

David Katz discusses school-based obesity interventions.

Mary Story et al describe policy approaches to creating healthy food environments.

And the American Association of Wine Economists (a group new to me, but interesting) forwards its Working Paper #33:

Janet Currie et al on the effect of fast food restaurants on obesity.

Finally, the action: Perhaps in response to all this, language inserted into the congressional spending bill asks the Federal Trade Commission to set up an interagency committee to set nutritional standards for products allowed to be marketed to children age 17 or under.  According to Advertising Age, the food industry thinks this is not a good idea.

Feb 24 2009

A post from 36,000 feet: Kathleen Merrigan

I know I’ve already posted today but I’m on an American flight to L.A. connected to GoGo and can’t resist checking out the WiFi.  It works!  And they aren’t charging for it on this flight!  And anyway, we have terrific news today: Kathleen Merrigan’s nomination as USDA assistant secretary.  Here’s what I told Eating Liberally about it.   Enjoy the day!

Jan 25 2009

Eating Liberally: peanut butter

Eating Liberally’s kat wants to know what the deal is on Salmonella in peanut butter.  The list of recalled products gets longer every day and now some members of Congress want the FDA to ask for recalls of all peanut butter, even that in jars.  The CDC reports nearly 500 cases of illness and, perhaps, as many as 7 deaths.  If you want to see something amazing, take a look at the FDA’s recall list.  Where will this end?  Here’s what I said to kat.