The current issue of the Journal of Hunger & Environmental Nutrition includes a commentary co-authored by myself and public health attorney Michele Simon. The piece is a response to the recent – and ongoing – debate surrounding front of package labeling.
Archive for the ‘policy’ Category
Last night I was grateful and honored to have a reserved seat for a talk given by Dr. Marion Nestle at The University of Washington to a sold-out audience of over 400 students, faculty members, and food policy buffs (the lecture was open to the general public).
What follows is a bullet-point, Cliffs Notes style recap of Dr. Nestle’s presentation; consider it a crash course in food politics 101!
Earlier this Summer, the Center for Science in the Public Interest generated headlines and buzz when they announced plans to sue McDonald’s if they continued to use toys to market unhealthy food to children,referring to the practice as “unfair, deceptive, and illegal.”
California’s Santa Clara county was the first government in the United States to implement their own “no toy” rule (though only in unincorporated areas, meaning Burger King and the like escaped unharmed), and it appears San Francisco is next.
San Francisco’s proposed rule, however, does include incorporated businesses. Rajiv Bhatia, director of occupational and environmental health for the San Francisco Department of Public Health accurarely explains that “this is not an anti-toy ordinance; this is a pro-healthy-meal ordinance.”
See, toys are allowed in children’s meals considered to be “nutritionally fit”. What makes a meal nutritionally fit? Here are the suggested standards:
- Less than 200 calories for a single item or less than 600 calories for a meal.
- Less than 480 milligrams of sodium for a single item or 640 milligrams for a meal.
- Less than 35 percent of its calories derived from fat (unless the fat is contained in nuts, seeds or nut butters, or from a packaged egg or packaged low-fat or reduced-fat cheese.)
- Less than 10 percent of its calories derived from saturated fats (with the exception of nuts, seeds, packaged eggs or packaged low-fat or reduced-fat cheese.)
- Less than 0.5 grams of trans fat.
- Meals must include a half-cup of fruits and three-fourths of a cup of vegetables.
- Beverages may not have more than 35 percent of their calories from fat or more than 10 percent of their calories from sugar.
Unless most fast-food chains decrease their portion sizes, they do not meet at least one of the above-mentioned guidelines. My thoughts on the guidelines?
- I like that not all fats are treated equal (a healthy item that consists of, say, sliced apples and a peanut butter dip would not be disqualified for being “too fatty”)
- I also like that eggs are not shunned for high cholesterol levels. Eggs are abundant in nutrients, and the whole “cholesterol in food causes high cholesterol in the blood” theory has been debunked time and time again.
- Lastly, I like that they serve as motivators for fast food chains to truly revamp their respective children’s menus if they wish to continue promoting them with toys.
Discouraging news from the other side of the Atlantic, friends — “fast food chains and restaurants have quietly sunk a plan by Britain’s food watchdog to display calorie counts in eating outlets across the country.”
A trial calorie-display initiative set forth by the Food Standards Agency has been downright abandoned by “fast food greats” like Pizza Hut, KFC, and Burger King.
Consequently, a mere three percent of the eligible fast food restaurants in Great Britain are posting calorie counts in visible ways (ie: not solely on their websites or on a leaflet that must be requested by customers).
This is why having the law on your side is crucial. Calorie counts must be legally — and federally — mandated. Case closed.
And, before any “the government can’t tell me what to eat!!” zealots pipe up, keep in mind that this is not about prohibiting the sale of any foods. It simply makes information more public and easier to access.
Earlier this week, I caught a rerun of a CNBC documentary (which premiered last November) titled “Coca-Cola: The Real Story Behind The Real Thing”.
It comes as no surprise that a channel devoted to business and marketing essentially made an aspirational “how-to” piece targeted to MBA students, heaping endless praise on the soft drink giant (buzzwords like “global presence” and “brand loyalty” abounded) for its world dominance.
Alas, the documentary still contained a few gems, detailed below:
1. Chief Financial Officer Gary Fayard, responding to his company’s obesity and health-related backlash:
There’s nothing bad in this bottle [of Coca Cola]. It’s pretty much all-natural. It’s the original energy drink.”
While there are certainly no lethal ingredients in Coca-Cola, there are questionable inclusions. Firstly, there are copious amounts of sweetener (whether cane sugar or high fructose corn syrup, a beverage containing 40 grams of sugar is far from healthful). Then, there’s phosphoric acid (which leaches calcium from bones).
The “all-natural” moniker is meaningless. Poisonous mushrooms are natural; that doesn’t mean they are edible and/or healthful. Poison ivy is also “all-natural,” but certainly not a plant you want to cuddle with.
Coca-Cola (which has been around since the late 19th century) is the original energy drink? News to me. I award coffee with that moniker, which has been consumed worldwide for thousands of years.
2. Coca-Cola executives prefer to refer to their sodas as “sparkling beverages”. Sad thing is, you know some advertising executive was able to pay off his mortgage in one fell swoop simply because they came up with that euphemism.
3. Coca-Cola executives apparently believe that if “people want to have a little moment of joy,” all they have to do is reach for a bottle of Coca-Cola.
4. Coca-Cola has an official historian — an employed staff member who, since 1977, has been safekeeping $60 million worth of print ads, bottles, and other memorabilia. Alas, Coca Cola’s secret formula is locked in the vault of an Atlanta bank.
5. Coca-Cola claims to have created “the modern image of Santa Claus”. As the ever-trusty folks at Snopes.com inform us, that is not true. Unfortunately, the claim was presented as undisputed fact in the documentary.
6. A Coca-Cola executive gleefully recalls that Coca-Cola was the only soda available to soldiers in World War II. Consequently, “11 million GIs came back with a keen loyalty to Coke.” Sure, they also came back with severe cases of PTSD, but, hey, Coca-Cola picked up 11 million loyal customers!
This particularly disturbed me. Here is a Coca-Cola executive attempting to tug at heartstrings by associating his product with patriotism and support of the troops, all while ultimately caring about “consumer loyalty” and heightened collective awareness of his brand.
7. A good third of the documentary focused on Coca-Cola’s presence in South Africa. We witness one shopkeeper (whose shop is his front porch in the slums) travel many miles to pick up a supply of Coca-Cola off of a distribution truck, which he then places in a wheelbarrow before heading back through raw sewage and muddy roads to his store.
The President of Coca Cola’s South Africa Business Unit manages to keep a straight face while stating that given the problems that these economically disadvantaged people face, they “need an extra dose of optimism” in the form of Coca Cola. Insert sound of needle scratching record HERE.
He also claims that “everybody who touches the product” makes money. We are then treated to images of local residents buying Coca Cola, and testimony from shopkeepers that one of the first things people in this small community do when they earn money is buy the ubiquitous fizzy brown soda.
An extremely rosy picture, but one that I am sure has a kernel of truth in it. However, the documentary completely glosses over the fact that Coca Cola’s ubiquitousness around the world often comes at a price for local farmers and the economy in third world countries.
Towards the end of the documentary, we hear from more Jurassic executives who giddily talk about the 900 million “potential customers” around the world who they have yet to introduce to their product, and their desire to “make sure [Coca Cola] is within reach.”
As the credits roll, it becomes perfectly clear that CNBC’s promise to “pull back the curtain on the planet’s most recognizable brand” fell flat.
The economic crash of 2008 forever changed the financial landscape. Consumer confidence sank, investors balked, construction projects around the world halted, and recovery is expected to continue well into the next decade.
I can’t help but think of Wall Street’s most recent implosion as a possible preview of what may happen with agriculture in the United States.
After all, the economic crash was the end result of an unsustainable financial system.
I use — as well as italicize and underline — the word “unsustainable” because it also happens to describe our food system.
We are, currently, at the peak. It all appears to be going well, as far as most people are concerned. Fast food chains offer plentiful food for low prices, while the amount of available calories for each American is at an all-time high.
You can’t help but wonder, though, how sustainable is the current agricultural system? It’s becoming increasingly clear that the answer is “not very”.
Increased pesticide and herbicide use over the past three decades has poisoned bodies of water and severely altered biosystems. Cattle-feed operations produce millions of tons of manure each year, placing a huge burden on the environment. Fish farms pollute nearby waters.
There is no possible way in which the current food system — which essentially sticks up the middle finger at Mother Nature — can continue as is for another decade without serious consequences.
Unlike the Wall Street scenario, there are no bailouts for the environment. You can’t simply bring life back to a poisoned river or lake overnight, no matter how many millions of dollars you throw at it.
This is not a doomsday prophecy. I believe, more than ever, that we are at the early beginnings of what could be a powerful collective shift in how we view food.
These issues can be often be daunting — at least they are for me — because it can be difficult to pinpoint what the best starting point is. For now, I believe that informing others of how our current food system works is crucial. There is no need for self-created pedestals, or belittling. After all, each and every one of us, at some point, had absolutely no awareness about any of this.
Similarly, “the sky is falling!” scare tactics often paralyze, rather than stir people into action.
While activism and advocacy are great services to society, not everybody has the time, personality, or unbridled energy for headline-making moves. You don’t have to be a policy maker to take action, though. If you are part of a book club, suggest that one of your upcoming tomes be “Food Politics” by Marion Nestle, “Fast Food Nation” by Eric Schlosser, or “Appetite for Profit” by Michele Simon.
Are you a school teacher? See if you can fit “Supersize Me”, “King Corn”, or “Food, Inc.” into your curriculum.
Discuss. Analyze. Engage in conversation. And, always, continue learning.
After months of low-voiced rumblings, it now appears a New York City soda tax is closer to reality than ever before.
Many nutrition professionals consider this a victory; my mood, however, is not quite as celebratory.
It appears the main drive behind this “sin tax” is to prop up New York state’s floundering economy. In that light, how much of this money can we realistically expect to be spent on nutrition education and assistance programs? After all, measures like these can only prove successful if they are also in favor of something. It is not enough to simply be “against soda”. What alternatives will be supported? How?
Apparently, some cities have vowed to spend a pre-determined portion of the money raised by a soda tax on improving school lunches. Sounds like a start.
My main problem? I simply can’t muster up enthusiasm about the addition a few cents to the cost of a beverage which has a government-subsidized main ingredient!
High-fructose corn syrup is the by-product of crop subsidies. Remember, farmers that receive government agricultural subsides are not allowed to grow other fruits and vegetables! Read that again, please. THAT, right there, is the problem that needs a solution.
Forget a “penny per ounce tax”; what I really want is for my government to stop funding an agricultural system that essentially produces endless tons of cheap junk food on a daily basis. The fact that farmers can be forbidden from growing pears or apples if they also want to plant a commodity crop (like cotton, wheat, soy, or corn) is mind-blowing.
This goes right back to the “some of the proceeds will go to improving school lunch” promises. I applaud the effort and vision, but the deplorable state of most school lunches is a consequence of agricultural subsidies.
You don’t fix a leak by placing a bigger bucket underneath it with each passing day. So, too, we can’t expect nutrition and public health issues to be effectively dealt with when our economic priorities are so skewed.
Earlier today I was reading an article on BBC News‘ website which discussed efforts by members of Great Britain’s Size Acceptance Movement to have “so-called “fat-ism” be made illegal on the same grounds as race, age and religious discrimination.”
While the organization makes the not-exactly-groundbreaking point that overweight individuals are perceived as less desirable in a multitude of arenas — from the workplace to dating — I was most horrified by this piece of information:
Protesters want the UK to follow San Francisco, where a law bans “fat-ism” in housing and employment and stops doctors pressing patients to slim down. Sondra Solway, a San Francisco lawyer, said: “The San Francisco ordinance says you may want to mention weight to the patient but if the patient says they do not want to talk about that then you are asked to respect those wishes.”
Excuse me while I pick up my jaw from the floor.
San Francisco, I love many things about you, but this law is not one of them.
What is this absolute nonsense of letting a patient decide what can and can not be discussed within the framework of a health consultation?
This is precisely my problem with the “size acceptance movement” in general — it makes absolutely no distinction between health and aesthetics.
As far as doctors and professionals in the nutrition field are concerned, weight loss is not about having Ryan Reynold’s washboard abs or fitting into a size 0 blouse.
Decades of research have made it absolutely clear that excess weight increases the risk of a multitude of conditions and diseases, from diabetes to heart diseases to cancer.
The fact that a medical professional is supposed to tiptoe around the issue with a patient in fear of being sued for “discrimination” is absolutely preposterous.
Meanwhile, I challenge you to find one formerly overweight (or formerly obese) individual who, from a health standpoint only, would rather return to their days of excess weight. Good luck!
Today’s Sydney Morning Herald reports on the latest — and mega controversial — developments in Britain’s public schools: “[elementary] school [students] identified as overweight will automatically be offered a place on a state-funded diet and exercise scheme.”
Here’s how it will work:
- At the beginning of this school year, all elementary school students will be weighed
- Weights will also be recorded at the end of the school year
- At that time, parents will receive a report that identifies their child(ren) as underweight, healthy, overweight, or very overweight
- Children who do not fall into the “healthy” category will be offered state-funded weight management services for the summer. Those identified as ‘very overweight’ will also be referred to pediatricians
Some parent associations are up in arms, claiming that branding children as overweight will encourage bullying, and that this measure is akin to a dictatorship. I say — bollocks!
How, exactly, does this measure encourage bullying? Results are confidential and only shared with parents, not the student body.
The unfortunate truth is that if a child is obese, he or she is probably already a target of mean-spirited harassment by classmates. An official — and confidential — classification is a moot point.
In fact, teachers could take advantage of this new policy to address body image issues in the classroom.
In middle school, I was relentlessly made fun of by my gym class for being a horrible basketball and baseball player (whenever I see a baseball glove I twitch and mentally take myself to a “happy place”), but that doesn’t mean I would support the removal of physical education from school curricula.
As for cries of “dictatorship”? Unwarranted. Parents are being offered — not forced to send their children to — weight management services.
I have spoken to so many parents of overweight children who feel so impotent and helpless and, from what they’ve told me, would be thrilled to receive this type of support and help from schools.
I think the real issue here is that parents don’t want to hear that their children are overweight because they somehow perceive that as a critique of their parenting skills. This is not an “identify the bad parents” initiative!
Today’s San Francisco Chronicle reports that “a New York congresswoman is trying to rally support for a federal bill that… bans feeding antibiotics to cattle, hogs and poultry to increase their growth.”
It specifically demands that “in the absence of any clinical sign of disease, farmers be forbidden from using any of seven classes of antibiotics, including penicillin, tetracycline and macrolide for routine infection prevention.”
The US Food and Drug Administration concedes that “giving anti-microbials to animals when they are not sick is inappropriate – and even worse, contributes to more drug-resistant infections in people.”
The American Medical Association and Food & Drug Administration have also expressed their support for this bill.
Sweet awesomeness, right? Not quite.
Many farms and ranchers — part of the ever-powerful agricultural and beef lobbies that appear to have Congress on puppet strings — have their own set of arguments against this bill, most of which are quite infuriating to read: increased prices of meat, higher rates of illness among cattle, animals who will be smaller in size and offer less meat if they become sick and eat less, etc.
Talk about not addressing the real issue!
Cattle and other animals get sick and need massive amounts of antibiotics because of their deplorable living conditions.
Remember, most cows in this country spend their entire lives standing in one spot eating an unnatural diet of corn and grains until the day they are slaughtered. Ironically, this is often sold as “all-natural” beef.
This corn and grain diet is extremely unhealthy and makes cows very ill, hence the need for antibiotics in the feed.
Why do farmers retort to such diets? Two reasons, both of which come down to the almighty dollar:
- Since corn and wheat are subsidized by the government, they are extremely cheap.
- This feed bulks up cows, thereby allowing farmers to sell more pounds of meat
As far as I’m concerned, this is even more of a reason to dispose of agricultural subsidies that do nothing towards health promotion (they are mostly used to feed cattle an unhealthy diet or to make lots of cheap high fructose corn syrup and oils used in nutritionally empty junk food).
Anyone who believes the elimination of agricultural subsidies will result in millions of people going hungry MUST read this brief article that details what happened when New Zealand got rid of their crop subsidies in the mid 1980s.
As for beef prices potentially increasing, I don’t see what the problem is. There are endless sources of protein — just as afforable, if not more — other than red meat available in the food supply.
It’s time to think about the real cost of food. Is saving a dollar on meat worth the inhumane conditions these animals live in and the possible health complications for humans from having antibiotics in the food supply?
We often hear of obesity’s figurative costs (a shorter lifespan, multiple health complications, social discrimination, etc.), but today’s San Francisco Chronicle details the financial effects of obesity on California’s ever-expanding deficit.
“Reported costs of rising obesity and physical inactivity rates have doubled to $41 billion in just the last six years” in Schwarzenegger’s state.
To put that figure into perspective, “$41 billion is nearly what the state spends on health care ($21 billion), social services ($10 billion) and prisons ($10.2 billion), combined, [and] slightly more than the $37 billion the state spends on K-12 education.”
Perhaps this is my Monday morning cynicism speaking, but it is usually these kinds of figures — and only these kinds of figures — that spur government officials to action.
Professor Philip James, chair of the International Obesity Task Force (IOTF), hit it on the head when he stated that “the biggest global health burden for the world is dietary in origin and is compounded by association with low physical activity levels.”
It’s clear that any public health policies wishing to combat obesity have to battle a social environment where unhealthy and disordered eating are at the forefront — and a government that, by subsidizing certain crops, enables added sugars and oils to be sold at exorbitantly cheap prices.
I would begin by prioritizing these two policies:
- A national ban on partially hydrogenated oils (not for obesity prevention, but to reduce heart disease)
- Strict zoning laws for fast food restaurants located around schools
Food policy news from Brazil this time, where a federal prosecutor in the city of Sao Paulo has “asked a judge to ban [the advertising and "sale" of toys] at [fast food chains] including McDonald’s and .”
The man in question — Marcio Schusterschitz (I’ll take “unfortunate last names for $1000, Alex”) — bases his case on the fact that “fast-food toy promotions encourage children to buy high-fat meals through “the abusive creation of emotional associations” that turn them into life-long eaters of high-fat foods.”
The wording is quite strong, but I agree with the basic idea.
I have noticed that many media outlets are framing this in an appalling “where in the world is THIS guy getting his ideas from?” framework, but keep in mind that Brazil’s Consumer Defense Code explicitly prohibits advertising aimed at children that “”takes advantage of the deficiency in judgment and experience of the child.”
As a child, I was never into fast food toys (the food in itself was enticing enough to me), but I remember many of my peers and classmates often begging their parents to take them to a fast food restaurant for the sole purpose of collecting all the toys that were available — for a limited time, of course — as part of the children’s “combo meal.”
We’ll soon find out if the judge in question wants to consider the case. I certainly hope he does.
PS: Yes, I am aware that these toys can be bought separately, but why do fast food chains even HAVE toys to offer? And, really, for all the fuss children make about these toys, they usually break — or are forgotten about — 24 hours later.
Today’s New York Times reports the conclusion of an eight-year-long study of millions of schoolchildren completed by economists at the University of California and Columbia University: “ninth graders whose schools are within a block of a fast-food outlet are more likely to be obese than students whose schools are a quarter of a mile or more away.”
This study is particularly significant since it adjusted for variables like income, education, and race, thereby making it easier to accurately pinpoint the effect of fast food restaurant proximity to weight.
More specifically, “obesity rates were 5 percent higher among the ninth graders whose schools were within one-tenth of a mile of a pizza, burger or other popular fast-food outlet, compared with students attending schools farther away from fast-food stores.”
In a not-at-all surprising move, the National Restaurant Association is shrugging this off since “it did not take individual diet and exercise into account.” The argument falls rather flat when you consider that the location of these fast food restaurants clearly had an effect on students’ diets.
I have long been a supporter of zoning laws regarding fast food restaurants and schools, and this only strengthens my belief.
An interesting piece of legislature passed in my home country of Argentina yesterday.
All supermarkets in Buenos Aires are now required by law to house healthier options and diet-specific products in clearly marked aisles.
This means, for instance, that all gluten-free products must be in the same aisle (as opposed to spread out in different aisles depending on what food category they belong to.)
Additionally, product varieties that classify as “lower in fat/calories/sugar” must all be housed in one aisle. Under this new law, low-fat mayo, lower-in-sodium soups, and reduced-sugar cereals would be clustered together.
Legislators say the goal is to “facilitate consumers’ search for products that meet their dietary needs.”
I like this idea quite a bit.
While by no means a perfect solution (ie: how about housing 100% whole grain products? Who decides what makes a product “healthy” enough to be placed in these aisles? What if a product is lower in fat but has the same amount of — or more — calories?), it’s a start.
I also appreciate the decision to make food shopping slightly easier — especially for those avoiding certain ingredients due to allergies and intolerances.
As I predicted in late 2007, sodium is quickly becoming the new trans fat in terms of public awareness, advertising focus (the amount of product touting “now with less sodium!” stickers continues to grow), and nutrition policy.
Today’s New York Times profiles “a new campaign to lower the amount of sodium America eats” developed by Dr. Thomas Frieden, the commissioner of New York City’s Department of Health and Mental Hygiene.
Over a recent lunch with food company executives, Dr. Frieden made his wishes very clear: “identify the foods that are contributing the most sodium to people’s diets and cut the level of salt by 25 percent. Do it in unison with out competitor [and a decade after that], cut it by another 25 percent.”
As optional as that may sound, Dr. Frieden did not shy away from proposing stricter legislation on sodium content in foods if companies did not appear to make an effort.
When this man talks, food companies tend to listen, particularly since he is one of the main brains behind trans fat bans and calorie labeling laws that are rapidly spreading throughout the United States.
“Under Dr. Frieden’s plan, which is based on one in the United Kingdom, targets for sodium reduction will be set for certain food categories. The prime suspects include cheese, breakfast cereals, bread, macaroni and noodle products, cake mixes, condiments and soups. The final list of sodium targets will be based on a formula that takes into account the amount of sodium in a product as well as how much food in that category people eat.”
It is not too surprising that sodium consumption is higher now than it was seventy years ago, considering the increasing amount of processed foods that make up the “typical American diet” (remember, the more processed a food, the higher its sodium content and the lower its potassium levels).
While recommendations call for no more than 2,400 milligrams of sodium a day, the average adult in the United States consumes anywhere from 3,300 to 3,700 milligrams on a daily basis.
And while it is true that not everyone is equally sensitive to sodium, there is a large enough percentage of the population that is sensitive that justifies a concern surrounding the amounts of sodium in many products.
The most interesting thing about sodium is that our palates adapt rather quickly to higher or lower amounts.
After approximately 21 to 25 days on a lower sodium diet, foods that once seemed “moderately salty” tend to be perceived as “very salty.”
Which brings me to another important point. Many people erroneously think that if a food doesn’t taste salty, it does not contain sodium.
Not so. High amounts of sodium are often found in sweet foods.
A Baskin Robbins Oreo sundae, for example, contains 950 milligrams of sodium. That’s 600 MORE milligrams than a large order of McDonald’s fries.