It’s a slow news week so I’m digging in to some items saved over the course of the year.
Here’s one from The Hartman Group, a market-research consulting firm: “Why [software] investors are pouring their lettuce into food.”
The article is about start-ups funded by software billionaires, but its point—there’s money to be made in food—reminds me of Fred Kaufman’s work on food commodity trading.
Making money from food is good when it keeps people employed and pays living wages.
It’s not so good when it adds to world hunger.
Food Navigator—USA’s Elaine Watson just put together a special edition on the revamping of the Nutrition Facts label. Her title: Radical overhaul or a missed opportunity?
To understand what’s happening with food labels, you can start with the FDA’s home page on its proposed revisions. The comment period has ended. You can read the comments that have been filed on the Nutrition and Supplement Facts panels, and those filed on the proposed changes to the standards for serving sizes. These are fun to read; opinions, to say the least, vary.
But back to Food Navigator, which collects in various pieces on the topic in one place. The “Radical overhaul” piece contains a summary of the major provisions. Others in the series are also useful (I’m quoted in some of them):
FDA proposals to list “added sugars” on the Nutrition Facts panel have already generated heated debate, so it’s perhaps unsurprising that its plan to include vitamin D is proving equally controversial…
A row is brewing over the merits of including ‘added sugars’ on the Nutrition Facts panel, with critics arguing that our bodies don’t distinguish between ‘naturally occurring’ and ‘added’ sugar – and neither should food labels – and supporters saying it will help consumers identify foods with more empty calories.
The FDA’s overhaul of the Nutrition Facts panel misses a public health opportunity by prohibiting firms from even highlighting long chain omega-3 fatty acids EPA and DHA on the panel, says GOED.
Check out this analysis of NHANES data to see where our added sugars are coming from plus read new comments about the ‘added sugars’ labeling proposal from Ocean Spray cranberries and others.
FDA proposals to overhaul the Nutrition Facts panel on food labels don’t got far enough, says former FDA commissioner David Kessler, M.D.
FDA proposals to change the way serving sizes are calculated to better reflect real-life eating behavior could encourage some people to eat even more unless the wording is changed, says one expert group.
While phosphorus is an essential nutrient found naturally in some foods such as egg yolk and milk, it is increasingly added to packaged foods via a raft of phosphorus additives, and some experts believe it should be listed on the Nutrition Facts panel.
Health Canada is proposing changes to nutrition labels that would make them easier for consumers to read.
Rachel Cheatham, RD, founder of nutrition strategy consultancy FoodScape Group, talks food labeling at the IFT show.
“A 16-ounce drink and a two-ounce bag of potato chips are a single serving. If it’s bigger than that, from 200 to 400%, then you need to declare two columns of information—one for the serving size and one for the whole container.”
Consumers find proposed labels easier to read in less time.
New research from the NPD Group is questioning how many US consumers even routinely check nutrition labels anymore.
If approved, the new labels would place a bigger emphasis on total calories and update serving sizes, while also drawing attention to added sugars and nutrients such as Vitamin D and potassium.
Both the Council for Responsible Nutrition and the Natural Products Association have submitted a comments on FDA’s proposed revisions for food and dietary supplement labels.
The FDA’s next step is to deal with the comments and issue final rules. By when?
Eventually. Stay tuned.
This is a book in a series on political economy and public policy, edited by political science professors in Canada and the United States with deep interests in food movements. The chapters, by various authors, define food sovereignty as “a central issue that cuts across social, political, economic, cultural, and ecological domains.” They deal with such matters as fair trade, local food, food security, and other food movements in places such as Cuba, Australia, France, and Brazil.
The editors say:
This volume posits that–given the incrasing attention to the politics of food as local, national, and global–it is important to incorporate these new areanas of political action much more widely into curriculums and scholarship and focus especially the framework and methodologies of political science on the profoundly political issues raised by the food sovereignty response…we seek to develop the study of food politics as a more engaged arena within the social sciences….
I say, yes!
Here are the burning questions about sodium (which is 40% of salt) intake:
(a) Does too much dietary sodium cause high blood pressure? Answer: an unambiguous yes (although not necessarily in everyone).
(b) Are public health recommendations to reduce salt intake warranted? I think so, but others disagree.
(c) If so, to what level? Although virtually all committees reviewing the evidence on salt and hypertension view public health recommendations as warranted, and advise an upper limit of about 2 grams of sodium (5 grams of salt, a bit more than a teaspoon (see table from the Wall Street Journal), these too are under debate.
These recommendations are strongly opposed by The Salt Institute, the trade association for the salt industry, its industry supporters, and some groups of investigators.
Now the New England Journal of Medicine weighs in with three new studies, an editorial, and a cartoon video. The papers:
Start with the video, narrated by the editor, Dr. Jeffrey Drazen (click on video link on the right side). It gives an excellent summary of the three papers. Despite their methodological differences, all confirm (a). They disagree on (c) and, therefore, (b).
Are public health recommendations warranted?
But note Dr. Drazen’s suggestion: “throw away the salt shaker.”
He is in favor of reducing salt intake. But the salt shaker is not where most dietary salt comes from. At least 75% of salt in American diets comes from restaurant and processed foods. As Dr. Yoni Freedhoff explains:
If you’d like to reduce the sodium in your diet, rather than keep a running tally of how much you’re actually consuming, why not try instead to determine what percentage of your diet comes from restaurants and boxes? Sure, there’s data to suggest you might simply find other ways to add salt to your diet. But visit restaurants and consume processed foods less frequently, and I’d be willing to wager that you’ll be far more likely to see health benefits than were you to simply fill your grocery cart with low-sodium versions of highly processed foods.
Individuals cannot cut down on salt on their own. That’s one reason why public health policies are needed—to get restaurants and processed food manufacturers to reduce salt content.
Two of the papers say that the only people who need to cut down on salt are those with hypertension and older people (one of the studies says that means people over age 55).
You can’t expect 70 or 80 million people to reduce salt intake on their own. Hence: public health recommendations.
Conflict of interest alert
Some of the investigators report receiving grants or fees from companies that make anti-hypertensive drugs but the editorial accompanying the papers is of special concern. Written by Dr. Suzanne Oparil, it says about one of the studies:
These provocative findings beg for a randomized, controlled outcome trial to compare reduced sodium intake with usual diet. In the absence of such a trial, the results argue against reduction of dietary sodium as an isolated public health recommendation.
These conclusions sent me right to her conflict-of-interest disclosure statement. Although Dr. Oparil reports receiving grants or fees from companies making anti-hypertensive drugs—-and, even more remarkable, from The Salt Institute—she states that she has no conflicts of interest.
I think she does.
Her editorial is especially unfortunate because it influences the way reporters write about the studies.
The Associated Press account, for example, begins:
A large international study questions the conventional wisdom that most people should cut back on salt, suggesting that the amount most folks consume is OK for heart health — and too little may be as bad as too much. The findings came under immediate attack by other scientists.
As well they should. Blood pressure rises with age and huge swaths of the population would be healthier eating less salt. The AP reporter quoted me saying so:
“People don’t eat salt, they eat food,” she said. “Lots of people have high blood pressure and lots of people are getting older,” making salt a growing concern, she said. “That’s the context in which this is taking place.”
The three studies are complicated to interpret because of differences in methods and discrepancies in outcomes. They agree that if you already have hypertension or are “elderly,” or eat a lot of salt, you should cut down.
This seems like a good idea for just about anyone. People don’t eat salt; they eat foods containing salt, and foods high in salt tend to be high in other things best consumed in small amounts.
The studies also talk about the protective effects of potassium, best obtained from vegetables.
Eat a lot of vegetables and not too much junk food, and you don’t have to worry about any of this.
Everybody agrees that the packaged food industry isn’t selling as much as it used to. Here are three explanations for this trend.
1. The packaging: The Wall Street Journal says it’s all about the old-style packaging that makes foods seem unnatural. Clear packaging works better for sales.
The biggest long-term challenge facing the U.S. food industry is that taste preferences are changing. This is most apparent among highly urbane and educated consumers, where the arbitrary boundaries of “too sweet” and “too fatty” are altering in ways inimical to the core food science paradigm of the U.S. food and beverage industry.
The U.S. food industry routinely serves crude flavor profiles associated with the unsophisticated farm cuisine of Middle America: heavy on salt, dairy and animal fat and, in the past half century, sugar…For years, there was growing demand for these flavors in all sorts of foods, primarily because U.S. preferences were not changing.
Now they are. The increasing multiculturalism of the U.S. population plus the globally well-traveled, savvy upper-middle class have created a large population of consumers intentionally seeking complex flavor profiles imported from much more sophisticated food cultures.
3. Not enough corporate social responsibility: Oxfam’s Behind the Brands campaign achieved two coups in the last week or so. First General Mills and now Kellogg have signed on to its Climate Declaration which commits them to reducing greenhouse gases produced in their processing chains. Oxfam organized more than 200,000 signatures on a petition—and produced a report, Standing on the Sidelines—to induce these companies to pay more attention to their effects on climate change.
Food advocacy is making headway. Keep at it!
Christopher Waldrop, who directs the Food Policy Institute at Consumer Federation of America writes to correct something I said in a post last week about USDA’s poultry rule. He says:
USDA will actually NOT be requiring plants to test for Salmonella or Campylobacter. Their press release makes it sound like they will, but if you read the final rule, USDA actually allows the plant to decide for itself what to test. It could be pathogens like Salmonella or Campy, OR it could be indicator organisms like generic E. coli. USDA does require testing at 2 points along the line – pre-chill and post-chill and will require a minimum testing frequency, but plants are not obligated to test for the pathogens that make people sick.
He points out that what the USDA really said is on page 229 of its statement of policy in the section on Indicator Organisms and Baseline:
Comment: Several consumer advocacy organizations argued that instead of allowing establishments to choose which organism to test for, FSIS should require that establishments test for Salmonella and Campylobacter. The comments said that these are the two pathogens of greatest public health concern in the products affected by the proposed rule and together account for nearly half of all poultry-related outbreaks in the United States…Response: As discussed above, the purpose of the proposed new testing requirements is to ensure that establishments are effectively monitoring process control on an ongoing basis. FSIS has determined that this can be achieved by sampling pre-and post-chill for enteric pathogens, such as Salmonella and Campylobacter, or for an appropriate indicator organism…The cost to analyze samples for Salmonella and Campylobacter is much greater than that to analyze for indicator organisms…FSIS has concluded that such costs would not be justifiable when measurements of indicator organisms are as effective for monitoring process control as measurements of pathogens.
Here’s what USDA says in its press release:
I can see why I misunderstood this as announcing a requirement for testing at two points for Salmonella and Campylobacter.
But the USDA is leaving it to the production plants to demonstrate that cheaper testing for an indicator organism like nonpathogenic forms of E. coli will adequately demonstrate that chickens are free of pathogenic Salmonella and Campylobacter.
Fingers crossed that it works.
Research on agriculture has long been the underfunded stepchild of the federal research enterprise. The 2014 budget gave USDA under $3 billion in total to fund all of its in-house research units and their granting operations: Agricultural Research Service, National Institute of Food and Agriculture, Economic Research Service, and Agricultural Statistics Service.
This may seem like a lot, but NIH gets $30 billion a year.
The 2014 farm bill contained a provision aimed at raising money for agricultural research. It provided $200 million (peanuts in federal dollars) to establish FFAR, which will operate as a non-profit corporation to obtain matching funds from private industry.
The members of the board were announced a couple of weeks ago.
It should be no surprise that many of the board members represent industry. Industry nominated 7 of the members. The other 8 were selected from a list provided by the National Academy of Sciences.
Now the board has to raise at least $200 million from industry, presumably with no strings attached.
Here’s the foundation’s dilemma: if industry funding has no strings—earmarks for certain research projects, for example—why would industry want to contribute? But if the contributions do come with strings, they create conflicts of interest.
This will be fun to watch. Stay tuned.
This book was a most welcome gift from the author of one of its chapters, Nina Ichikawa (thanks, Nina). Her chapter is about how Asian farmers and retailers became food system pioneers.
Others reflect on the Asian-American food experience from the perspective of, to give just a sample, Cambodian donut shops and taco trucks in Los Angeles, Chinese restaurant workers in New York, the incarcerated Japanese mess hall experience during the Second World War, the Filipino culinary diaspora, and the Asian Queer kitchen.
The chapters cover a century of Asian food work in America, necessarily getting into deep issues of culture and politics.
The book ought to stimulate plenty of conversation and argument—perfect for a course in food and culture.
Enjoy the weekend!