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Nutrition & Health News, week of December 9th

  • Michelle Obama announced a shift in the priorities of the Let’s Move! campaign from promoting healthy diets to emphasizing physical activity for kids. Food policy expert Marion Nestle believes the shift is a bad move, and that FLOTUS has given up on lobbying the food industry and others to make healthier foods because promoting physical activity isn’t as politically loaded. [Food Politics]
  • In a landmark move this week, Health & Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius overruled the FDA’s petition to sell Plan B (the morning-after pill) over the counter to girls under the age of 17. Research by the FDA had determined that girls under age 17 (the legal age at which one can purchase Plan B without a prescription) were capable of making an informed decision to use it appropriately without a doctor’s (or parent’s) guidance, but Sebelius disagreed. Notably, she called for more research on the 10-11 age group, even though only 10% of girls are able to bear children at that age. [The Atlantic Wire]
  • Loopholes in the regulations around SNAP (food stamps) allow  beneficiaries in some states to purchase foods at Starbucks, Taco Bell, and KFC. Should the USDA be able to restrict the use of SNAP to only healthy foods? [Obama Foodorama]
  • An article in Time Magazine offers reasons why a tax on soda would work. The author posits that taxes imposed on manufacturers (an excise tax) would force them to reformulate recipes to include less sugar or high-fructose corn syrup rather than raise prices for consumers. I’m not convinced that’s how it would play out, but we’ll have to wait and see. [TIME]
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Nutrition & Health News, week of December 2

  • More and more children are receiving free or reduced school lunches due to recent economic downturn. According to the New York Times, the number of students receiving subsidized lunch has increased by 17% since 2007. With more students relying on these meals, it becomes even more crucial for Congress to pass improved meal standards for the federal school lunch program. [NYT]
  • Siri, the iPhone 4S’s smart assistant, appears to be pro-life. Ask Siri where to find a nearby abortion clinic or emergency contraception and she won’t be able to tell you despite the fact that the same Google search will yield results. However, she can still direct you to an escort service or tell you where to dump a body. Was this deliberate or just a programming glitch? Apple has yet to comment on the issue. [Gizmodo, The Atlantic, VentureBeat]
  • A lengthy feature in this weekend’s New York Times Magazine explains the rise of celiac disease in the United States. As awareness of the disease rises, so do diagnoses – and food companies, like General Mills, are taking advantage of a new audience to sell products to. Celiacs are happy because gluten-free choices are easier to find, and taste less like cardboard.  [NYT Magazine]

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.

Nutrition & Health News, week of November 18

  • In a compromise between the House and Senate, a $18.2b appropriations bill seeks to revise many of the changes to the national school lunch program that were proposed by the USDA earlier this year. The original bill’s proposed changes to school lunch regulations, which attempt to meet the 2010 Dietary Guidelines, have been met with strong opposition from various interest groups (e.g. the potato industry). Among one of the revisions that has been squashed is the rule that would have stopped tomato paste used on pizza from being counted as a vegetable serving. [Obama Foodorama, NPR/Salt, Food Politics]
  • Mark Bittman’s most recent column describes “The Secret Farm Bill,” rewriting of the 2012 Farm Bill that is happening behind closed doors. Four members of the House and Senate Agriculture Committees (all from Midwestern states with a large amount of farming) are working to slash $23 billion in appropriations from the current version of the bill. Many of the cuts are expected to come from commodity subsidies (direct payments to farmers producing crops like corn and soy), but some of the cuts may be to public food assistance programs like SNAP (food stamps). Bittman calls for an open policy debate on the Farm Bill’s provisions, which is unlikely to happen. [NYT Opinionator]
  • The world’s fattest nation is, surprisingly, not the United States but Qatar. With an obesity rate of nearly 50% and a diabetes rate of 17%, the nation is getting unhealthier rapidly. (For comparison, the current obesity rate in the U.S. is 33%.) Fast economic growth and affluence of the population are likely the root causes of the spike in these so-called lifestyle diseases.  [The Atlantic]
  • Good news for beer drinkers: a research study in Italy indicates that drinking 1-2 pints of beer per day lowers one’s risk of cardiovascular disease, as much as drinking a daily glass of wine. [All Headline News via The Food Section]

Hot Issues: Taxing Sugar-Sweetened Beverages

In the U.S., the consumption of sugar-sweetened beverages (soda, energy drinks, sports drinks, sweetened juices, etc.) has steadily risen over the past 30 years, strongly correlated with obesity rates. Sugar-sweetened beverages (SSBs) are now the most significant contributor to one’s daily caloric intake, and have a recognized negative impact on health. Regular soft drink consumption has been directly linked with increased body weight, as well as increased risk for diabetes and metabolic syndrome, even among those who consumed just one soft drink per day.

First, some statistics to set the stage:

  • Adults consume an average of 265-293 calories’ worth of SSBs on a daily basis, while adolescents consume an average of 104-269 calories from SSBs per day. [1]
  • A whopping 96% of beverage marketing and advertising is targeted directly at children and adolescents. [2]
  • “For each extra can or glass of sugared beverage consumed per day, the likelihood of a child’s becoming obese increases by 60%.” [2]
Increased consumption of SSBs has prompted 34 states to impose sales taxes or place restrictions on their sale. Unfortunately, the current taxes are modest, averaging 5.2%, and sales restrictions are generally limited to schools; as a result, these policies have not had the intended effect of reduced SSB consumption among the general population. What are some other options that states can pursue to reduce SSB consumption and therefore obesity?
       Taxing sugar-sweetened beverages is one of the most popular options, suggested by food policy experts like Kelly Brownell (director of Yale’s Rudd Center for Food Policy & Obesity) and Michael Pollan.  Current sales taxes have shown a limited impact on consumption habits, largely because consumers have already made the decision to purchase SSBs when the tax is applied at the register. Instead, an excise tax imposed on SSB manufacturers would result in increased prices for consumers, which may deter them from purchasing them altogether. Analysts from the Rudd Center and the Center for Science in the Public Interest have estimated that the impact of a 1 cent per ounce excise tax would result in $14.9 billion in revenue raised* – which could used to fund public health and obesity prevention programs [1, 3]. This revenue could also be used to recoup some of the costs of obesity to our health care system, which amounted to $147 billion dollars in 2008.
       There are many barriers to SSB taxation, including lack of public support, the interests of the beverage industry, and logistical issues in determining appropriate ways of taxing beverages. But, the potential benefits – improved health among the population and increased revenue for states – build a strong argument for taxation as a step towards solving the nation’s obesity epidemic. Of course, taxation isn’t a “cure” for obesity and would need to be combined with other efforts in order to make a significant impact.  What do you think? Is taxation a step in the right direction?

*this amount was calculated assuming some reduction in consumption

[1] Pomeranz JL. “Advanced policy options to regulate sugar-sweetened beverages to support public health.” Journal of Public Health Policy, 25 August 2011. [epub ahead of print]

[2] Brownell KD, Frieden TR. Ounces of Prevention – The Public Policy Case for Taxes on Sugared Beverages. New England Journal of Medicine. 2009; 360(18):1805-1808.

[3]  Yale Rudd Center for Food Policy & Obesity. Soft Drink Taxes: A Policy Brief. Fall 2009. Available from: http://www.yaleruddcenter.org/resources/upload/docs/what/reports/RuddReportSoftDrinkTaxFall2009.pdf

SNAP (Food Stamps) Benefits by the Numbers

Thanks to Professor Parke Wilde, who writes the popular blog U.S. Food Policy, for introducing my Food Policy class to this neat Google Gadget today. The graph tracks the changes in enrollment in the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) and unemployment in the United States. Press the play button at the bottom left to watch the trends in participation over time from 1990 through 2010. Notice the spikes in participation in bad economic times, like now.

Nutrition & Health News, week of Nov. 4

  • A new research study of teens in Boston public schools indicates a possible link between sugar-sweetened beverage consumption and violence. Teens who drank 5 or more cans of soda per week were more likely to carry a knife or gun and to act violently towards friends and family than their peers who drank less than 4 cans per week. More research on this topic is needed, but researchers hypothesized that perhaps the excessive sugar and caffeine intake might be causing aggressive behavior. [The Atlantic]
  • On Tuesday, the Local Farms, Food, and Jobs Act was introduced in the Senate and the House. The proposed bill would make changes to the current Farm Bill (the next Farm Bill is due to be passed in 2012) to promote small, organic farms and improve local and regional food systems for both farmers and consumers. [Obama Foodorama]
  • A small study looked at the effects of weight on the effectiveness of the seasonal flu vaccine. The study was composed of 74 people who were either normal weight, overweight, or obese. The results indicated that the vaccine was less effective in the obese patients, who had less antibodies over time than patients who were normal weight. The study implies that a higher dose vaccine may be needed for patients who are obese. [Commonhealth]
  • U.S. News has released a list of the healthiest diets. But, no surprise, the healthiest diets aren’t the ones that people say actually work for them, helping them to both eat better and eat less (and lose weight). Topping the list are Weight Watchers and Eco-Atkins. [The Atlantic]

Nutrition & Health News, week of Oct. 21

  • After a lengthy review process, the Institute of Medicine’s council on front-of-package (FOP) labeling has released its final report. Faced with numerous FOP labeling systems – it seems like every brand, grocery store, etc. has their own – Congress called upon the IOM to evaluate which kind of label would be most useful and informative for consumers who want a quick glance at the nutrient content of packaged foods (because everyone knows the Nutrition Facts label on the side is hard to figure out). After months of research, the IOM endorsed a basic rating system – “a simple icon with 3, 2, 1, or zero check marks [stars]” and calories per serving – but no word on whether this will become standard or mandatory. [Food Safety News]
  • The USDA’s proposed rule to limit the number of servings of white potatoes and other starchy vegetables that can be served as part of the National School lunch menus was struck down on Wednesday in an amendment to the 2012 agriculture appropriations bill. The rule  is part of sweeping regulations that aim to improve the nutrient quality of federally subsidized meals for school children. Restrictions on potatoes were only one small part of the proposed rule, which received more than 130,000 comments in the federal register. The National Potato Council and other lobbyists were vehemently opposed to this part of the rule. The final revised rule will be released in December. [Obama Foodorama]
  • Girl Scouts can now earn a “locavore” badge, given for learning about and cooking with locally sourced foods. The badge encourages scouts to explore their local food communities, and think about the impact of local foods on their health and environment. Cool! [The Food Section]

Upcoming Event: National Food Day

On October 24th, 2011, the first ever Food Day will be held across the country. Food Day is a national event advocating for “healthy, affordable food produced in a sustainable, humane way,” hosted by the Center for Science in the Public Interest and a long list of partner organizations. The goals of Food Day are:

  • Reduce diet-related disease by promoting safe, healthy foods
  • Support sustainable farms & limit subsidies to big agribusiness
  • Expand access to food and alleviate hunger
  • Protect the environment & animals by reforming factory farms
  • Promote health by curbing junk-food marketing to kids
  • Support fair conditions for food and farm workers

In Boston, the event will be hosted by none other than Tufts University (woo!). Mayor Menino will be on hand to speak about the importance of Food Day’s message, and his vision of the future of Boston’s food systems.

When: October 24th, 2011 from 1-2pm

Where: Tufts University School of Medicine (Sackler Auditorium)

The event is open to the public and registration is here. If you can’t attend in person, you can watch the webcast on the Friedman School website.

Learn more about the event here and check out how other cities, communities, schools, organizations, etc. are celebrating.

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