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food, nutrition, and health news



Food Policy News: Week of March 27

  • The USDA recently conducted a study of SNAP-based incentive programs, those which increase the value of SNAP benefits at farmers’ markets through matching funds or another mechanism. The goal of the Farmers Market Incentive Provider Study was to explore who is funding, operating, and supporting these programs in communities across the US. Wholesome Wave provided a nice summary of the findings, largely from a series of interviews, demonstrating that these programs rely heavily on steady funding streams and partnerships with community organizations to sustain them. [USDA Economic Research Service]
  • Early evidence suggests that Mexicans are drinking less sugary drinks in the wake of the country’s recent soda tax, which took effect in January. In response to the peso-per-liter tax on sugar-sweetened beverages, beverage companies like Coca-Cola have passed the tax burden down to consumers by raising prices. Beverage sales are predicted to fall by 6-7 percent as a result. [Bloomberg]
  • A recent community poll in Berkeley, CA demonstrated community support for a tax on sugar-sweetened beverages – 66% of voters surveyed would support a penny-per-ounce tax if revenue went into the city’s general fund, and 64% would support a tax if the funding were devoted to nutrition and other community programs. The UC Berkeley student government also recently passed a tax on sugary drinks on campus to raise revenue for the student health center. [Berkeleyside]
  • The country of Denmark was able to eliminate salmonella in raw chicken by taking an upstream approach to food safety and adopting a “zero tolerance” policy. Human illness from salmonella is a huge problem in the United States, but taking a similar approach to Denmark isn’t feasible given the sheer size of our poultry industry (we processed 8.5 billion chickens in 2013), and the fractured nature of our food safety and inspection systems. A food safety overhaul in the U.S. is long overdue – but, in the meantime, I’d steer clear of chicken. [Food Safety News, Food Politics]

Nutrition & Health News, week of May 25

  • Ending a long-running trial, a federal judge ruled that POM Wonderful’s advertising that likens pomegranate juice to an anti-cancer drug is misleading. POM’s ads grossly over-exaggerated the effect of their product to reduce the risk of cancer, heart disease, and erectile dysfunction, without substantial scientific evidence. Some ads went as far as portraying POM as a superhero or life support (see above). POM managed to put a positive spin on the ruling by reciting the FDA and FTC’s standard rules, which they should have been following in the first place, and noting that their ads are not subject to pre-approval by the FDA. In practice, this means that POM can put out new misleading ads until the FDA and FTC take them back to court. [New York Times] Update: Marion Nestle shares her thoughts on POM’s advertising.
  • A USDA study reported that healthier foods are not necessarily more expensive than junk food. Calorie for calorie, fruits and vegetables are more expensive than processed foods because they are low in calories. But, when measured in terms of serving size, “grains, vegetables, fruit, and dairy foods are less expensive than most protein foods and foods high in saturated fat, added sugars, and/or sodium.” The measurement issue is the key to determining affordability, and the study has important implications for food policies that attempt to increase affordability of healthy foods. [Economic Research Service]
  • Results of a survey by the W.K. Kellogg Foundation show that Americans are supportive of local farmers. The random survey of 800 Americans asked questions about their attitudes towards fresh produce as well as support for local farmers, SNAP programs, and fair wages for farmers. Check out the infographic or the full survey. [Washington Post]
  • Research by Brian Wansink, director of the Food and Brand Lab at Cornell and author of Mindless Eating, demonstrated that visual cues could stop people from overeating junk food. In the study, college students were given either regular Pringles or Pringles that contained red cue chips to delineate serving size. Students who received the cue chips ate less chips overall and could more accurately estimate the number of chips they’d eaten compared to their peers who received regular Pringles. [The Atlantic]

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 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 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 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 [Obama Foodorama]

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.

The USDA’s New Food “Pyramid”

Big news – the USDA is on their way to replacing the awful MyPyramid version of the Food Pyramid. The current version, which many agree to be impossible to interpret (not just for laypeople, but even for nutritionists), looks like this:

Introduced in 2005

The 2005 version came with a website that helped you interpret its confusing imagery. While this version was a slight improvement upon the old one (see below), because it ranked foods within each group (with better choices at the bottom of each gradient, and worst choices at the top) and also included physical activity, critics (Marion Nestle, for one) agreed that for most people it was indecipherable.

Doesn’t ring a bell? Most people remember this older version of the Food Pyramid:

Introduced today, the “MyPlate” diagram is similar to what other countries (e.g. Mexico, the United Kingdom, etc.) have been doing for years.

My initial thoughts:

  • easily interpretable – even for children, as Michelle Obama noted
  • this can serve as a visual guideline at every meal
  • huge emphasis on fruits and veggies
  • lacks visuals of actual foods – if you aren’t already familiar with the food groups, you’ll have to look at the website
  • lack of serving sizes…plates are not all one size and research has shown that over-sized plates (popularized by restaurants) encourage people to eat more
  • I’m happy that “protein” has replaced “meat” but this ignores the facts that a) protein is a nutrient, not a food group, and b) that protein can come from any of the other categories on the plate (mostly grains or dairy).
  • overall, this is pretty vague

I’m interested to see if they add anything to this version or the website. For more information, check out or listen to this NPR announcement.

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