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Posts Tagged ‘Food System’

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CONFLICTS OF INTEREST AND THE USDA

Tuesday, June 7th, 2011

The USDA is a Department within the US government that oversees agricultural and nutrition policies and programs. Recently, the USDA released a new icon (see above) to replace the older “food pyramid.” The USDA also included several guidelines which are listed below:

Balancing Calories

  • Enjoy your food, but eat less
  • Avoid oversized portions

Foods to Increase

  • Make half your plate fruits and vegetables
  • Make at least half your grains whole grains
  • Switch to fat-free or low-fat (1%) milk

Foods to Reduce

  • Compare sodium in foods like soup, bread, and frozen meals – and choose the foods with lower numbers
  • Drink water instead of sugary drinks

In general, there is a lot of good stuff here. We like the idea of using a plate (although the size of the plate matters) to depict appropriate serving sizes as opposed to the old pyramid. The plate is easier to understand and is likely more memorable. We also like the idea of using the majority of your plate for vegetables and protein – hard to go wrong there. We certainly agree that folks should enjoy their food – some people could use to eat less, but portion size should likely vary with your activity level. Lastly, comparing sodium in prepared foods might help people avoid overly processed and preserved foods. Avoiding sugary drinks is almost always a good idea.

However, there are also some aspects of this new guidance on which we disagree. First, there is no reason that grains should make up approximately 25% of your diet and in fact grains can be eliminated from your diet entirely. If this statement made you gasp, please bear in mind that although there are essential amino acids (building blocks of proteins) and essential fatty acids (building blocks of fats and triglycerides), there is no such thing as an essential sugar (building blocks of carbs) (“essential” here means something that you have to eat because your body cannot make it). Moreover, there is evidence that grains might actually be unhealthy by interfering with the digestion and absorption of nutrients. Second, individuals who are looking to lose weight might want to restrict their fruit and dairy consumption. A diet consisting of 25%+ of fruit and dairy can add up to a heck of a lot of sugar pretty quickly. Third, and this is a big oversight, we don’t see healthy fats explicitly included anywhere. Perhaps these are implied under protein and dairy, but we feel that healthy fats and oils from beef, lamb, salmon, butter, coconut, and olives, for example, are absolutely critical for good health and for satisfying meals. Science is finally putting to rest the notion that people get fat from eating fat (as opposed to eating excess grains and sugars). As an historical aside, it is interesting to us that the 1943 version of the food pyramid called “The Basic Seven” listed fruits and vegetables as three out of the seven groups, meats and dairy as three out of the seven groups (butter had its own group!), and bread, flour, and cereals as one-seventh of a healthy diet.

So, what has happened in the intervening years to make grains so highly recommended by the USDA? Does it have to do with USDA Agencies such as the Agricultural Marketing Service; the Farm Service Agency; and the Grain Inspection, Packers and Stockyards Administration being under the same roof as the Center for Nutrition Policy and Promotion and the Food and Nutrition Service? I don’t know, but recommending so much grain consumption does not appear to be supported by the scientific evidence. Over the next few weeks, we’ll review some of that evidence in detail. In the meantime, we propose the plate below for a modified approach to eating a healthy diet.

Myplate_-_choose_better

FOODS WITH BENEFITS?

Monday, May 16th, 2011

The NYT is writing about food labeling again and how it seems that products from cereal to yogurt to juice are including claims on their packaging regarding how their product (which is usually packed with sugar) is gonna make your baby smarter or make you poop faster.

These labels tend to bother me as a consumer and as a scientist. It is misleading and unethical to lead people to believe that rice krispies will boost your immunity or that frosted mini wheats will make your kid ace an exam. Moreover, these types of claims often appear on “foods” that have been so processed and refined that I sometimes cannot even tell what they are actually made up of anymore.

As a result, I offer the labels above (which can be printed on Avery US Letter 5160 label paper – wink, wink). They read, “Humans have been on this earth for thousands of years. It is likely that early humans would not have even recognized this product as food.” I consider these labels appropriate for highly processed or refined foods making outrageous health claims. Feel free to use as you see fit.

NESTLE ON ECONOMICS

Monday, April 4th, 2011

In economics, an externality is a cost or benefit that is not accounted for or represented in the price of a service or commodity. For example, pollution from a manufacturing process can be a negative externality or an externalized cost if there is no remediation of the pollution and the cost of that remediation is not included in the price of the product being produced. The idea is that the exclusion of the costs associated with the pollution from the price of the product does not mean that those costs do not exist, they have just been externalized.

In Marion Nestle’s recent Food Matters column in the SF Chronicle, she highlighted a few areas where costs are often externalized within the food system. That is to say, areas in which the demand for inexpensive food has led producers to externalize costs so they can offer lower prices at the grocery store. Some of these areas include: human costs, environmental costs, safety costs, and health and health care costs. Many current large-scale agricultural practices result in paying workers low wages for difficult or dangerous work, environmental pollution or resource consumption without replacement, crowded or unsanitary living conditions for animals, and subsidies (i.e., your tax dollars) that provide incentives to produce grains and corn (high fructose corn syrup, anyone?) instead of vegetables.

Now, we all like low prices and good deals at the store, but ignoring the external costs is not getting a good deal. This is why many people choose to buy organic products that are often more expensive than similar products that are not organic. In many respects the externalities of organic products are absent or greatly reduced, which is why the prices tend to be a bit higher. For me, buying organic, although sometimes harder on the wallet, is a more honest approach and acknowledgement of the true costs associated with my food.

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