Wednesday, October 6, 2010

Dig In - Food and Public Health

Your roving reporter is writing this post from beautiful St. Peter, Minnesota, location of the 46th annual Nobel Conference, sponsored by Gustavus Adolphus College.  The theme of this year's conference is "Making Food Good".  Yesterday an actual audience of about 5,000 people and a virtual audience of unknown size heard presentations on nutrition and public health, food security, crop and seed diversity and causes of obesity.  Food and nutrition policy expert Dr. Marion Nestle's lecture was titled "Food Politics: Personal Responsibility vs. Social Responsibility".  And that is the talk I want to tell you about today.  (Nestle rhymes with wrestle.)

I need to tell you right up front that I am a huge fan of Dr. Nestle.  (This blog links to her blog.  Need I say more?)  She has been in the trenches working to improve public health for decades, fearlessly taking on many powerful interests.   Her work centers around food systems -  the agriculture to food to nutrition to public health connection.  She advocates for an agricultural system that would support, not undermine, public health.  She wants to raise the "dietary literacy" of the general public.  She is plain spoken, fair minded and straightforward.  She knows her stuff.  One of her particular areas of interest is the effect of food marketing on childrens' diet and health.  As bonus, she has a sense of humor.

So now that you know my bias,  I will touch on some of her key messages.   If you have one hour to spare, I encourage you to listen to her entire presentation.  Then you can see for yourself if I am telling you the truth.  The video is archived here:

The United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) keeps track of facts and figures on hunger.  The good news is that in the last year the number of people who are chronically hungry is down 10%.  The bad news is that there are still 925 million people who don't have enough to eat.  See where the world's hungriest people live here.

Dr. Nestle emphasized her view that the solutions to world hunger are social, not technological.  She suggested several ways to address the problem, including increasing the rate of breastfeeding and empowering and educating women.

Food marketing
Did you know that the 2009 marketing budget for Froot Loops was $20.3 million?  And for Frosted Flakes it was $20.9 million?  I don't mean to pick on these two cereals - but these are the examples Nestle used because the information is publicly available.  Most information about corporate expenditures on food advertising is proprietary.  Her point in sharing these numbers is that the food industry is very competitive.  Food manufacturers are good at their job - which is to sell their food products and keep their shareholders happy by showing a profit every 90 days.  Their job is not to protect public health.  Their job is to get us to buy (and eat) more of what they sell.  As Nestle put it, "Eating less is very bad for business."

Dr. Nestle spoke at length about marketing practices like "front of the package labeling".  Consumers want to be healthy, so various claims such as ""heart healthy" or "may lower cholesterol" are plastered all over many products.  You might want to start paying more attention to these claims and ask yourself how valid they are.  Ask yourself the question Dr. Nestle posed - "Is a 'better-for-you product' a good choice?"  In other words, one particular breakfast cereal might be a better choice than another.  But wouldn't good old oatmeal with some real fruit and nuts be the best choice?

Be especially skeptical of food "self endorsements" and rating systems.  There have been many efforts by food manufacturers to come up with special systems or symbols to convince you that their food will make you healthy.  Dr. Nestle told of one major grocer in the Northeast who hired independent experts to rate the many thousands of products they sold based on specific nutrition criteria.   Their plan was to implement a star system to help their customers.  More stars on a product would mean more nutritional benefit.  It was so interesting to learn that the independent firm found that only 24% of the products evaluated met even criteria necessary to quality for even one star.  One more reason to cook real food at home from scratch.

Obesity is a major cause of illness in the U.S. and a growing cause of illness globally. 
Dr. Nestle showed us many charts showing the increased rates of obesity in this country since the 1980's.  She discussed several reasons for this trend - larger portion sizes, ubiquity of food, proximity to food and low prices of food.  One of the reasons for more proximity, low cost and ubiquity is the fact that, on average, we are producing about double the calories that we need in this country.   The more calories we have to choose from, the more competitive the people selling the calories need to be.  Hence calories are everywhere - and overall pretty cheap.   This causes me to wonder more about causes of obesity.  Is it just failure of will power (personal responsibility)?  Or is their an environmental component which crosses into the realm of social responsibility?  We could probably have a long conversation about that.

Food Politics
Dr. Nestle's charts showing the lobbying expenditures of the food industry were eye-opening.  If you ever wonder why we have the food and agriculture system that we do, you might keep in mind the fact that many of our elected leaders accept large political contributions from all manner of food producers.  More than one speaker yesterday mentioned our political system and the way political campaigns are financed as a reason for the policies we live under.  No surprise there.

It was also no surprise that Dr. Nestle's overall "prescription" for a healthier diet was "balance, variety and moderation."  Just like the speakers at the U of M conference last week, she did not tell us about a silver bullet.  Even eating your CSA vegetables every week is not a silver bullet.  But a CSA box is a good arrow to have in your quiver.

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