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Nutrition & Health News, week of June 15

  • New York City’s Mayor Bloomberg is again attempting to combat obesity with a proposed ban on large sugary drinks. The ban would prohibit the sale of sugar-sweetened beverages (e.g. soda, sweetened iced tea, etc.) larger than 16oz in any food-service establishment (e.g. restaurants, movie theaters). Diet sodas, fruit juices, dairy drinks, and alcoholic beverages would be excluded from the ban. The proposal is not without its critics, with many people arguing that the mayor should not be telling them how much soda to drink. Proponents of the ban argue that this is one way to induce behavior change in individuals. The proposal was submitted to the NYC Health Board on Tuesday – stay tuned! [New York Times]
  • The FDA rejected a request from the Corn Refiner’s Association to change the name of high-fructose corn syrup (HFCS) to corn sugar. The CRA has been promoting their effort through commercials which claim HFCS is processed the same way in the body as regular sugar, attempting to erase HFCS’s bad reputation. The FDA, however, rightly believes that changing the name would confuse consumers and potentially mislead them into believing sugar and HFCS are equals. [Food Politics]
  • A 9-year-old student in Scotland, who called herself Veg, had been documenting her school’s lunches on a blog called Never Seconds. The blog received over 2 million hits and was recognized by chef Jamie Oliver as an important effort in raising awareness about the need for improving school lunches. Yesterday, the school prohibited her from bringing a camera to school and claimed that she “abused and attacked” the catering staff – effectively, shutting down her blog. Within 48 hours, due largely to outrage in social media outlets, the school council removed the ban and has committed to hosting a School Meals Summit this summer. Go Veg! [Wired]

Nutrition & Health News, week of March 16th

  • The USDA had planned to purchase tons of “pink slime” to put into school lunches but, after a storm of criticism in the media, has reversed their decision. “Pink slime” is a term for fatty beef trimmings that are used as a filler in ground beef – it looks as gross as it sounds and is not required to be labeled on beef products. This is the same pink slime that McDonald’s and other fast food chains recently decided to stop using – leaving the USDA to pick up the extra for the federal school lunch program. However, after several senators called for a ban of the product in schools entirely, the USDA decided to allow schools a choice of whether or not to use the goop in meals. [Obama Foodorama, The Salt]
  • A new website, the Leanwashing Index, alerts consumers to advertising and marketing ploys that mislead parents and kids into believing junk foods are healthy. The site calls out ads guilty of “leanwashing” by giving them a score based on the degree to which their claims of health benefits are truthful or not. Not surprisingly, some of the worst offenders are sugary cereals and other foods marketed at kids. Check out the site to learn more. [via Marion Nestle]
  • New research* from Harvard links red meat consumption to higher risk of death and cardiovascular disease. The prospective research study, in which participants were followed over a 25 year period, assessed intake of processed and unprocessed red meat and its effects on health. Fear not, meat eaters – the participants at increased risk of death were those eating at least one serving of red meat every single day. Not surprisingly, these same participants were more likely to have unhealthy diets overall.
  • The CDC recently began a national media campaign warning against the dangers of smoking. The ads, in an effort to  get away from spewing statistics on smoking-related deaths, show real people who are living with the devastating health effects of smoking. Preview one of the ads here, and watch out for the campaign starting on March 19th. [Robert Wood Johnson Foundation Blog]

*email me if you would like a copy of this article

Nutrition & Health News, week of Feb. 17

  • A video presented at TEDxManhattan 2011 shows the difference in your body’s digestion of processed foods versus whole foods. If you haven’t already watched it, prepare to be grossed out. [Fooducate]
  • A preschool student in North Carolina was told by a government official that the lunch she brought from home was unhealthy, and she was forced to eat the school’s meal of chicken nuggets instead. Her lunch, packed by her mother, consisted of a turkey and cheese sandwich, banana, chips, and apple juice – while it could be healthier (without chips, plus a vegetable), it was certainly more nutritious than chicken nuggets. All meals served in pre-K classrooms, even lunches brought from home, are required to meet USDA guidelines for meals; if they do not meet the guidelines, the provider is supposed to supplement (NOT replace) the missing components. [Carolina Journal]
  • A new commercial from fast food outlet Chipotle promotes the chain’s practice of sourcing organic, local foods through a video bashing Big Food and factory farming operations. The cute animation shows a farmer practicing sustainable farming methods (happy cows, munching on grass in a green field) and later loading his meat onto a Chipotle-branded truck. Chipotle’s emphasis on sustainable and organic foods is a rarity among chain restaurants, particularly in fast food. [Serious Eats]
  • Research out of Dartmouth found high levels of arsenic in organic brown rice syrup, which is used in many foods (mostly organic “processed” foods, like granola bars, etc.) as a sweetener. Arsenic was found in amounts six times the EPA’s threshold of 10 parts per billion for drinking water in a tested infant formula. There are currently no federal regulations regarding arsenic content in juices or foods, prompting the research team to strongly encourage the FDA to do something about it. Fox News reported the same story by grossly exaggerating the results, claiming basically that all organic food has arsenic in it. [Bloomberg]

Nutrition & Health News, week of Feb. 2

  • The Susan G. Komen Foundation, a private breast cancer advocacy group, caved to political pressure from anti-choice groups and pulled grant funding from Planned Parenthood that went toward providing breast cancer screenings, education, and referrals for low-income women. Despite the fact that the type of grant funding was restricted (meaning it could only be used for its intended purposes, e.g. screenings), the Komen Foundation pulled nearly $700,000 in funding in response to “the fear that an investigation of Planned Parenthood by Representative Cliff Stearns, Republican of Florida, would damage Komen’s credibility with donors.” In the past 48 hours, outraged citizens have since made up the amount in donations, including a dollar-for-dollar match up to $250,000 from NYC Mayor Michael Bloomberg. [New York Times]
Update: The Susan G. Komen Foundation has reversed its decision and will continue to allow Planned Parenthood to receive grant funding! Of the reversal, they stated, “amending our criteria will ensure that politics has no place in our grant process…We do not want our mission marred or affected by politics – anyone’s politics.” Read the Komen statement here.
  • An op-ed piece in the Los Angeles Times by two professors at Cornell University calls for schools to promote nutritious choices for kids, rather than force them on students. In response to the USDA’s recent revisions to the federal school lunch program, which will require fruits and vegetables to be offered at every meal and restricts some of the unhealthy menu options, they argue that forced adoption of healthy options will produce food waste: “trying to teach students to eat more healthful foods by removing other choices can backfire.” The professors instead encourage schools to “make the more healthful choice the more attractive choice, not the only choice” through simple environmental changes, like more aesthetically pleasing fruit displays, that have proven a effect on kids’ behaviors. They are responsible for the Smarter Lunchrooms Initiative. [LA Times]
  • A survey conducted by Share Our Strength’s Cooking Matters program, an anti-hunger organization, indicates the low- and middle-income families are cooking more meals and eating healthier than previously thought. The belief that lower income families lack access to healthy foods and tend to rely on fast food meals rather than home cooking  is apparently a misconception. This study showed that “the lower a family’s income, the more they cooked from scratch” with 78% of families regularly (4-5 times per week) cooking meals at home, and 50% reporting that they ate healthily. Access to and cost of healthy foods posed barriers to eating healthily, but for only a small portion of the sample. [Mark Bittman, NYT]
  • A position paper published in Nature argues that consumption of sugar, not obesity, is to blame for rising rates of non-communicable chronic diseases such as diabetes, cardiovascular disease, and cancers. Arguing that excessive sugar consumption is the root cause of many of our health problems, the authors call for government regulation of sugar through taxation, sales bans, and “removing sugar from the FDA’s ‘generally regarded as safe’ (GRAS) list of ingredients.” Although these measures are extreme, given that Americans consume an average of more than 600 calories per day from sugar, they may have some merit. [Nature via Fooducate] [see picture above from Nature]

Nutrition & Health News, week of January 27

  • Michelle Obama revealed the USDA’s new and improved standards for the federal school lunch program. You may recall controversy over the proposed rule’s limitati0ns on potato servings and the “pizza is a vegetable” issue – the USDA made some compromises to these areas, but the final rule is largely the same. The changes, which largely adhere to recommendations from the Institute of Medicine, include adding significantly more fruit and vegetable servings, reducing saturated fat and sodium, switching to whole grains over time, allowing only low-fat milks, and decreasing the overall calories per meal. Although the new standards don’t go far enough on some issues (e.g. flavored milk is still allowed as long as it’s non-fat, despite its high sugar content), these are the first major changes in over 15 years by the USDA and, according to Marion Nestle, “worth celebrating.” [Obama Foodorama]
  • Massachusetts Governor Deval Patrick wants to tax candy and soda to raise revenue under an expansion of the state’s bottle bill. He believes the public would support such a tax, based on recent poll results. Although this may encourage residents to buy less of these unhealthy products, the tax revenue would be a very small percentage of the state’s budget if passed. [Boston Herald]

And in weird news…

  • A teen in the United Kingdom has been living off of McDonald’s chicken nuggets for 15 years. She was rushed to the hospital after experiencing strange health problems like troubled breathing and , causing her to “realize this is really bad for me.” Um, ya think? This is even more disgusting than Morgan Spurlock’s experiment. [Huffington Post]
  • Sticking raw bacon up your nose can help stop chronic nosebleeds, according to a recently published study. Apparently, creating such a “nasal tampon” from cured, salted pork is an old remedy, but was stopped due to potential for bacterial infection. I wish I had never heard the phrase “nasal tampon.” [The Guardian]

Boston Health News, week of December 2nd

  • With flu season just around the corner, the Occupy Boston encampment in Dewey Square, poses a significant health risk. Occupiers partnered with the Boston Public Health Commission to set up a free flu clinic on site for occupiers to receive vaccines in order to establish herd immunity among the campers. [Commonhealth]
  • The 2011 Health of Boston report, released yesterday, indicates the city is doing well in some respects, and poorly in others. The BPHC said of the results, “Boston is one of the healthiest city in America, but, obviously, there is still work to do…That’s why it’s important that we continue to sound the alarm about the bad health consequences of sugary beverages and tobacco, while continuing to provide support for community gardening, Farmer’s Markets, and create policies and programs that allow residents to incorporate physical activity into their daily routine.’’ Read the full report here. [Commonhealth]
  • Boston was recognized for its impressive Farm to School initiative by the Mother Nature Network. The city’s public schools receive locally grown, fresh produce from area farms to incorporate into school meals. The meals are offered in conjunction with additional nutrition education and some cafeterias have had professional guest chefs cook their meals. [Grub Street Boston]

 

In the News: USDA proposal to revise school lunch menus squashed in Congress

In the past couple of weeks, you’ve probably heard about the proposed changes to the National School Lunch program in the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act of 2010. Most of the news coverage is centered on the “pizza as a vegetable” topic, but I thought I’d give you some more background.

The National School Lunch Program is a federally funded program whereby states receive subsidies for meals offered to students in public and non-profit private schools and residential childcare facilities. Students can be eligible for either low cost or free lunches. In 2010, the program provided meals to more than 31.7 million children each school day.

Proposed Changes

In the face of childhood obesity, which has tripled over the last 50 years, the USDA proposed a rule that would make school lunch and breakfast menus healthier and more nutritious. Changes to the rules, which haven’t been revised in more than 15 years, would align menus with the 2005 Dietary Guidelines* and are intended to reduce childhood obesity. The proposed rule would require schools to offer more fruits, vegetables and whole grains; offer only fat-free or low-fat fluid milk; reduce the sodium content of school meals substantially over time; control saturated fat and calorie levels; and minimize trans fat. Offering healthier meals would enable the program to better meet the nutritional needs of children and would reinforce the healthy eating habits they are taught in nutrition education lessons.

The Challenges

The USDA estimates that making these changes would cost almost $7 billion dollars over the next five years, with changes being phased in gradually. This would increase the cost of meals by 14 cents and states would have to make up some of the extra cost. For states that are already strapped for cash, this would be difficult to do, even if changes take effect slowly. Offering more fresh produce and other foods may require additional training for food service staff, extra cafeteria resources, and other potential costs to schools. In the more than 130,000 public comments that Congress received on the proposed bill, these were among the important points brought up by school districts, school administrators, and food service representatives.

The proposed rule also isn’t perfect. The changes could be stricter – for example, require all grains to be whole grains instead of just half of servings; phase out flavored milk due to its high sugar content; or phase out canned fruits and vegetables completely. But, making the changes stricter would further increase the financial burden on schools. The USDA also has to strike a delicate balance between changes that will improve children’s health but that will still be appealing to them. Many have expressed concern that kids won’t respond well to healthier offerings, resulting in a drop in program participation, kids not taking the foods offered, or throwing them away.

What happened in Congress

Industry groups and other special interests have been lobbying against the proposed rule since it was introduced in January 2010. In particular, the potato industry has vehemently opposed the part of the rule that limited servings of potatoes and other starchy vegetables (such as peas and corn) to 2 cups per week. More recently, members of the frozen food industry have voiced their anger over the amount of tomato paste on pizza that can be counted as a vegetable. The current requirements allow for 1/4 cup of tomato paste per slice to be counted as a vegetable but the proposed rule would have increased the amount, which pizza makers argued would make their product unappetizing.

On Tuesday, the proposed rule was shot down in Congress, but the USDA remains resilient in its efforts to improve the nutrition content and quality of school lunches. For now, pizza is still counted as a vegetable. This quote from the New York Times sums it up:

“It’s a shame that Congress seems more interested in protecting industry than protecting children’s health,” said Margo G. Wootan, director of nutrition policy at the Center for Science in the Public Interest, a nonprofit research group. “At a time when child nutrition and childhood obesity are national health concerns, Congress should be supporting U.S.D.A. and school efforts to serve healthier school meals, not undermining them.” [NYT]

If you’re really interested in all the details, you can read the 78-page proposed rule, the White House fact sheet, or check out a sample before/after menu. To tell Congress how you feel about their catering to industry lobbyists instead of protecting children’s health, sign this petition by the Center for Science in the Public Interest.

*Why not the 2010 Dietary Guidelines? Because the rule was proposed just a month shy of the most recent version of the Dietary Guidlines.

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