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Hot Issues: Labeling of Genetically Modified Foods

Genetically modified foods are those that contain genes that have been transferred from another organism to produce a desired trait not naturally occurring. GM foods go by a number of different names – genetically modified organisms (GMOs), genetically engineered (GE), or transgenic. In the United States, most of our biggest crops – soy, corn, and cotton – are genetically modified for pest resistance or herbicide tolerance to increase crop yields. As a result, approximately 80% of processed foods in the U.S. contain one or more GMOs. However, because the FDA does not require GMOs to be labeled in our food, you wouldn’t know if something contained GMOs without doing your research first.

Some of the benefits of GMOs include increased crop yields, pest resistance, herbicide tolerance, and the potential for improving the nutrient profiles of foods. Of the approved GMOs already in our food supply, the FDA has agreed that they are safe for consumers based on scientific evidence. However, health and environmental groups are concerned about the potential for adverse effects in humans and the environment – including introduction of allergens to foods, toxin contamination, GMO contamination of nearby non-GMO crops, or, in the case of animals, crossbreeding with non-transgenic species. The long-term health effects of a lifetime of consuming GMO foods are unknown, since GMOs have only been in our food supply since 1996.

Several states have recently introduced legislation that would require GMOs to be labeled – unfortunately for consumers, none of the legislation has passed. Implementation of labeling would be difficult to require at the state level without a federal mandate. But, with more and more states considering labeling laws, the issue is definitely in the public eye. Whether or not the FDA will act is a different story.

This infographic, from the Just Label It! campaign, gives just a few reasons that consumers should have the right to know whether or not the foods they eat contain GMOs. The FDA allows voluntary labeling of GMOs – not surprisingly, the products that are currently labeled are those that are non-GMO. Although the infographic depicts GMOs somewhat negatively, the issue at hand is not whether GMOs should be allowed – but purely whether or not labels should be required so consumers can make informed choices about their food.

If you are concerned about GMOs, there are a couple ways you can avoid them in the absence of mandatory labeling. For now, the best way to avoid GMOs is to buy certified organic foods – which are not genetically engineered by default – and avoid processed foods.

What’s your take on this issue? Should GMOs be labeled?

For more on this topic, check out Marion Nestle’s recent article in The Atlantic.

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Nutrition & Health News, week of March 2

  • On Wednesday, the USDA unveiled a new digital tool, called Know Your Farmer, Know Your Food Compass. The website is a repository for data, videos, and stories of local and regional food systems, and is meant to spur public interest in and awareness of local food initiatives sponsored by the USDA. Check it out here. [Obama Foodorama]
  • A new exhibit on obesity at Walt Disney World was shut down after it was criticized for being “insensitive and [reinforcing] stereotypes that obese children are lazy and have poor eating habits.” The exhibit featured two superheroes, called Willie Power and Callie Stenics, who have to fight against villains such as Snacker and Lead Bottom – and, you guessed it, the villains are overweight and eat too much. While an exhibit on healthy lifestyles is a good idea given that nearly 30% of kids are overweight or obese, Disney needs to create an exhibit that doesn’t stigmatize being overweight and instead teaches kids how they can engage in physical activity and eating well. [CBS]
  • A judge dismissed a court case against seed behemoth, Monsanto. Organic farmers sought to protect themselves from being sued by Monsanto in the case that pollen from the company’s patented genetically modified plants ended up contaminating organic crops. Monsanto is infamous for its bully tactics and routinely threatens small farmers with patent suits. The judge dismissed the case because it was based on hypothetical suits and none of the farmers had claimed to be threatened by Monsanto. [NPR]

*image via USDA

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]

Nutrition & Health News, week of January 20

  • Amongst flying rumors on the interwebs, Food Network queen Paula Deen announced that she has been living with a diagnosis of Type 2 diabetes for the last couple of years. Her announcement was no surprise to anyone who knows her fondness of everything buttery and deep-fried, and conveniently timed with the launch of her partnership with diabetes drug manufacturer, Novo Nordisk. She’s struck a lucrative deal with Novo Nordisk to peddle Victoza in their new diabetes management campaign, Diabetes in A New Light, causing many people to question her motives and her lifelong promotion of high-calorie foods. Of the criticism, Deen has said, “Honey I’m your cook, not your doctor…I’ve always encouraged moderation.” Really? Her “princess bites” don’t seem very moderate. [The Atlantic, Serious Eats]
  • Research by the CDC indicates that obesity rates in the U.S. have plateaued, with 35.7% of adults and 16.9% of children qualifying as obese. Although this stall is positive and may be due in part to increased efforts to control obesity, the fact remains that the rates are not declining. We will be seeing the impact of obesity for years to come. [New York Times]
  • At a meeting of the nation’s mayors in Washington, D.C. this week, the mayors formed a Food Policy Task Force led by Boston’s own Mayor Menino. According to the agenda, the task force will “focus on issues including reducing obesity, increasing access to healthy affordable food in low-income communities, and increasing local food procurement and entrepreneurship in cities. The task force will review issues and policy barriers to addressing food access, food security issues in urban areas including recommendations on increasing SNAP (Supplemental Assistance Nutrition Program) participation via recommendations on best policies and practices, 2012 Farm Bill, support for farmer’s markets, food desert mapping and healthy food retail.” In Boston, Mayor Menino has been instrumental in beginning a number of food policy initiatives for the city. [NPR]
  • Mayor Menino pledged to lose 2lbs per month over the next year during his State of the City speech on Tuesday. He made this promise when talking about efforts to reduce obesity in Boston, where over half of residents are overweight. Will the mayor’s promise encourage citizens to follow suit? [Commonhealth]

Upcoming Event: “Let’s Talk About Food” at Boston’s Museum of Science

Marion Nestle, food policy expert, will be speaking at a forum called “Let’s Talk about the Farm Bill” at Boston’s Museum of Science in a couple weeks. This is part of the MOS “Let’s Talk About Food” lecture series.

What’s the big deal about the farm bill? An interactive “teach-in” explores the ways that subsidies and regulations impact the quality and cost of the foods we consume here in New England. Learn about the process and meet some of the stakeholders, share your perspectives, and find out how the public can have a voice in reshaping the face of agriculture.

Speakers include: Marion Nestle, PhD, professor of nutrition and public health at New York University, author of Food Politics and What to Eat; Representative Chellie Pingree (Maine), member of the House Committee on Agriculture; and Tim Griffin, PhD, Director, Agriculture, Food and Environment Program, Friedman School of Nutrition Science & Policy, Tufts University.

When: Sunday, January 29th, 2012 at 3pm

Where: Cahners Theater, Museum of Science

Find out more details and register for the event here.

Nutrition & Health News, week of January 13

Happy New Year! I took a little break from blogging since the start of 2012, but I’m back.

  • New York City’s Department of Health, known for their creative ways of addressing obesity, released a somewhat controversial string of public service announcements meant to warn the city’s residents about the dangers of soda and fast food consumption and increasing portion sizes. Naturally, the American Beverage Association is upset at the city’s use of  “scare tactics” – but really, isn’t that what we need? [New York Times] [picture above]
  • The USDA announced its Blueprint for Stronger Service yesterday. As Tom Vilsack described, the plan “takes a realistic view of the needs of American agriculture in a challenging budget climate, and lays out USDA’s plans to modernize and accelerate service delivery while improving the customer experience through use of innovative technologies and business solutions.” The plan is largely a response to budget cuts anticipated in the 2012 Farm Bill, and the first step is closing 259 domestic offices, labs, and facilities. [Obama Foodorama]
  • The FDA has banned the use of a class of antibiotics (cephalosporins)  in lifestock in an effort to prevent the spread of antibiotic-resistant bacteria in the human population. This particular class of antibiotics is frequently used to treat strep throat, pneumonia, and other relatively common ailments. This represents a small step in curbing the spread of such bacteria, coming after the FDA recently withdrew a larger proposal to ban antibiotic on a broader basis. [New York Times] Food policy expert Marion Nestle also weighed in on the issue in The Atlantic.
  • Marion Nestle gives her predictions on how food politics will shape up in 2012. Her outlook is not optimistic, with good reason. [The Atlantic]
  • Americans are eating less meat of all kinds – beef, chicken, and pork. In Mark Bittman’s column this week, he explains why meat consumption has decreased by 12% in the last five years – a combination of rising food prices and conscious consumer choice. [New York Times]

Nutrition & Health News, week of December 30th

  • Scientists  in Rotterdam funded by the U.S. have discovered a genetic process that makes the H5N1 (avian flu) virus airborne. Because the potent virus has over a 50% death rate in humans in its non-airborne form, government officials are hesitant to let the scientists publish their findings in order to “prevent the work from being replicated by terrorists, hostile governments or rogue scientists.” If released, the airborne virus could cause the most deadly flu pandemic yet. [New York Times]
  • Influential voices in health policy made their predictions on the fate of The Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act (aka Obamacare) and health care in 2012. The Supreme Court is expected to make a decision in early 2012 on whether or not the individual mandate (requiring everyone to have health insurance) is constitutional. The individual mandate is believed to be the linchpin of Obamacare. [Commonhealth]
  • Last week, the FDA withdrew a proposal that would prevent antibiotics from being put in animal feed. The proposal had been sitting in Congress since 1977, waiting indefinitely for more research to be conducted. Antibiotics given to farm animals are a well-known health risk to humans because, as Mark Bittman explains, “the animals become perfect breeding grounds for bacteria to gain resistance to the drugs, and our inadequate testing procedures allow them to make their way into stores and our guts.” Apparently the FDA doesn’t think this is a problem. [New York Times]
  • The USDA released the MyPlate SuperTracker, an online tool meant to help Americans maintain healthy weight by keeping track of their diets and physical activity. The tool allows for personalized recommendations and goal-setting based on meeting the 2011 Dietary Guidelines and the 2008 Physical Activity Guidelines. It sounds cool – but will people actually use it? Check it out at ChooseMyPlate.gov. [Obama Foodorama]

Michael Pollan’s Edible Education 101

Michael Pollan’s popular lecture series, Edible Education 101: A Complete Course on Modern Food Production, is now available online through The Atlantic. From their website:

This fall at the University of California, Berkeley, a new course surveys the political, social, environmental, and gustatory stakes of modern food production. In his Edible Education 101: The Rise and Future of the Food Movement, Berkeley journalism professor and best-selling author Michael Pollan yields the spotlight to other experts: Though he appears frequently as introducer, moderator, and panelist, the classes are focused on an all-star cast of guest lecturers. Taken together, these food A-listers and innovators provide a compelling, comprehensive portrait of 21st-century eating.

Although all the lectures are available for free via UC Berkeley’s YouTube channel, The Atlantic has put them all together for you in one place. Check it out here.

*image via the New York Times

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