I’m going out on a limb and predicting Glitter Wine in 2014

According to today’s Federal Register (the daily roundup of announcements from the US Government’s agencies), the FDA is “amending the color additive regulations to provide for the safe use of mica-based pearlescent pigments…in distilled spirits…in response to a petition filed by E. & J. Gallo Winery.”

I’m not really sure what to make of that, except that E. & J. Gallo Winery (which according to their website is “the world’s largest family-owned winery and largest exporter of California wine”) had a vision of a world in which wine wasn’t merely white, red or whatever color this is, but instead shimmered with a panoply of magical iridescence, and the FDA wanted to help make that vision a reality.

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I have no idea what the health ramifications are of ingesting mica-based pearlescent pigments. Presumably, if the FDA OK’d it, it means it’s probably fine, although the FDA has been known to make bad calls in the past. Common Sense seems to suggest that we probably don’t need glittery wine, and that rather than amending the color additive regulations to allow for more additives the FDA could revisit some of the controversial color additives already in use.

But who knows? Maybe I am totally wrong and the FDA was right to prioritize green-lighting mica-based pearlescent pigments over their other duties. Its not like they have more pressing things to worry about, procrastinating like a college student watching kitten videos at three in the morning the night before finals until, to pull a hypothetical out of thin air, the Center for Food Safety sued them for taking too long to implement several major provisions of the Food Safety Modernization Act (FSMA). This law, ratified on January 4, 2011, represents the largest overhaul of our food safety system in decades. Its delay, hypothetically speaking, “is putting millions of lives at risk from contracting foodborne illness” and “constitutes unlawfully withheld and unreasonably delayed agency action.”

This suit is actually almost a year old and the court ruled in April, finding that the FDA’s delay in implementing the FSMA was in violation of the Administrative Procedure Act. The judge ordered the FDA and CFS to work together to set a mutually acceptable schedule for implementation. In a turn of events that was surprising to no one, the FDA refused to set any specific deadlines so both parties submitted different timetables to the court. F for group effort on that one kids.

The FDA, explaining that “because there are numerous factors and variables that will affect the length of time required for the development of draft final rules for regulations that have already been proposed, as well as the development of proposed rules that are not yet completed,” concluded “it is not feasible to predict with anything approaching certainty when the final FSMA regulations will be ready to be published.” So they decided to give themselves the “aggressive but achievable” timeline of well into 2014 with the caveat “that future developments, such as the need to supplement the administrative records with additional information, or the need to re-open one or more regulations, may render FDA unable to act within all of these timeframes.” So basically they accomplished the opposite of setting a timeframe.

In response, CFS stated that the FDA’s proposal “utterly fails to comply with the Court’s Order…A deadline is a deadline, a firm parameter with meaningful consequences, not a “target timeframe.” Contrary to Defendants’ mischaracterization, Defendants’ Proposal provides nothing remotely resembling a closed-ended process, not in accordance with the Court’s Order and congressional intent in setting firm deadlines for rulemaking in FSMA.” CFS wants everything finalized by 12/31/13, with final rules submitted by 5/1/14.

Part of the problem here is with the Office of Management and Budget, which the FDA doesn’t have any control over and which likes to sit on finalized rules for a long time with no reason because otherwise our democratic system of government might actually work.

To summarize, this whole fiasco is basically the story of FDA, the hapless undergrad, trying to get a paper extension from stern professor CFS. Thanks to helicopter parent OMB, FDA is probably going to walk away with an Incomplete with option to submit the paper after a long summer break sipping on Glitter Wine™.

The Elusive Idea: Common Sense

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A set of basic beliefs commonly held among a group of people; the baseline of knowledge an individual is expected to have within their own community; simple facts drawn from self-evident conclusions; intrinsically subjective, i.e. “You ought to have known that, it’s common sense”; the aggregate of collective knowledge (does that mean the Internet is common sense?); a mushy term that is really hard to define in any satisfactory way.

Common sense might just be inherently vague and the exercise of trying to define it inherently silly. But I hope to show that in the context of overcoming our national crisis with food, a robust and shared notion of common sense has an important place, so bear with me.

Depending on how you define common sense, its opposite could either be rash stupidity or a set of contested facts that require explanation. Lets focus on the latter for the purposes of this post and say that the opposite of common sense is confusing information that is in no way intuitive. If you’ve spent any time today skimming The Atlantic, the health section of The New York Times or the abstracts of re-posted articles on your Facebook newsfeed, you’ll have probably encountered this kind of information.

Examples:

1) The Atlantic’s The Great Salt Debate: So Bad? by Travis M. Andrews in which salt defender Gary Taubes explains that “people believe salt is bad simply because that seems logical, even if it isn’t.”

2) Foodnavigator-USA.com’s New research into exactly where Americans’ calories are coming from throws up surprising results by Elaine Watson, cites a study which found, “contrary to popular belief,” that fast food and junk food accounts for less caloric intake than previously thought.

3) The New York Times’ Don’t Take Your Vitamins by Paul A. Offit, which discusses the “antioxidant paradox,” where taking too many doses of antioxidants in the form of supplemental vitamins can be harmful to your health.

Eye-catching headlines like these introduce articles that are often as full of surprising data as they are void of measured assessment of the cited study’s structure, findings, and funders. These are the viral articles that get shared the most and satisfy our browsing curiosity by leaving us with the feeling that we learned something new, because it was unexpected and unconventional and deviated from common sense. We rush to click the share button as if it would earn us a virtual merit badge for being the first in our social circles whose worldview has been enriched with the nuance of the counterintuitive.

But here’s the thing: despite everything I just said above about these eye-catching articles, I do actually agree with one of them. The Atlantic did a terrible job of making it clear to its readers that while a handful of salt defenders being paid by the Salt Institute want salt consumption to stay the same, the American Heart Association, United States Department of Agriculture, Center for Disease Control, and even the Institute of Medicine think that for 99% of Americans (yes that means you!) consumption needs to go down. And although Foodnavigator-USA did point out at the end of their article that the National Restaurant Association funded the study cited in the headline, i.e., the organization that stands to gain the most positive PR from the findings, who is going to read that far?

The New York Times article, however, was right on. I agree completely that the vitamin and supplement industry is a total racket. Excepting specific recommendations from your doctor, eating a balanced diet (mostly fruits and vegetables, whole grains, some dairy, and fish for those EPA and DHA omega-3s) is almost always a better way of getting what you need than taking isolated vitamins and minerals in pill form. (Note, this isn’t to say the New York Times always gets it right. Earlier this year Pam Belluck’s article Study Suggests Lower Mortality Risk for People Deemed to Be Overweight forgot to mention that the study didn’t adjust for the test subjects who had lost weight because they were already sick or dying at the beginning of the study. Meaning the data didn’t prove that overweight people live longer than people whose B.M.Is were in the recommended ranges, it just confirmed the no-brainer that serious illness often comes with serious weight loss.)

What does it mean that out of these similarly formatted articles, all of which come from fairly reputable sources, only one offers useful advice? It’s a problem I am sure you’ve also encountered at some point, browsing online, flipping through the schizophrenic pages of a fashion magazine, or watching Dr. Oz at the gym: how are we supposed to navigate all the nutrition information being thrown at us and separate the good information from the bad?

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There is another setting in which this question is sure to arise. An environment full of overwhelming and contradictory information describes a Facebook newsfeed as well it describes the uncharted aisles in the middle of the supermarket. Thanks to all those messy and misleading labels, shopping for food pretty is much the worst. You basically need a calculator to do the serving size math and work out how much fiber, sugar, fat and other ingredients are in your shopping cart. You also need to know how many of those things you are actually supposed to have a day to begin with. A PhD in longass words helps too, because how else is anyone supposed to know that Triplodextrins are refined sugars, Suchrolimaseors are useless artificial fibers, and why is there fire retardant in this energy drink? Also, you are balancing the limited resources of patience, will power, time, and money and doing it in a building without windows (this is on purpose, so you lose track of time) and large displays of junk food at the end of every aisle (this is on purpose, to grind away at your will power). And finally, you are doing all of this to keep you and whomever else you are responsible for feeding alive, preferably for the average healthy lifespan of a North American adult (ideally from your grandparents’ generation, since health stats during the last 30 years haven’t been so great). I spend a lot of time learning and reading about this stuff, and still I occasionally find myself in the aisle with the sugar-free workout energy water enhancers and olestra flavored low-fat Pringle’s.

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We try to keep our heads above water with the handful of nutrition facts we happen to remember, things like: antioxidants and flavanols are good for you, eating lots of fruits and vegetables is important, and Vitamin C helps fight colds. But these facts can sometimes run away from us, leading to conclusions like “I should eat dark chocolate because it has antioxidants and flavanols, drink V8 Fusion because the label says each serving of juice has a cup of fruits and vegetables in it, and buy Emergen-C December through February to boost my immune system.” But eating chocolate because of its purported health benefits is crazy, because chocolate isn’t healthy. Its delicious, its fun to eat, and in small amounts its fine. But that is different from healthy. Water and spinach are healthy. You would have to consume a lot of either of them before their benefits to your health were in any way compromised. You only need a little too much dark chocolate before the antioxidants in them are totally trumped by the calories and sugar and the precedent you set up in which things you want with a little qualification become things you need. As for those fruits and veggies, at 24g of sugar per serving (Coke has 27g), V8 Fusion’s pulverized, powdered, and reconstituted vegetable matter is as good as the plastic it comes in. And Vitamin C? Unless you are training for a marathon you probably don’t need more Vitamin C than you can get from an orange. Just eat an orange. Or a bell pepper or broccoli or kale or strawberries or cauliflower or kiwi or Brussels sprouts, which all have tons of naturally occurring Vitamin C.

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To summarize: we live in a chaotic food environment. Most of the time it feels like even with complete access to an endless amount of food information, we are ill-equipped to meet one of the most basic requirements for survival: feeding ourselves. No other animal manages to make itself as sick as we do by eating. Probably because no other animal is as good at creativity, productivity, and deceit.

What seems to be missing in our relationship with food is a guiding principle, some larger philosophy to organize our food knowledge around and to help us sidestep the questionable information coming out of People magazine.

And the first step to establishing that guiding principle? Recognizing that every diet decision depends on your individual context. Your weight, your health, your medical history, the time of day, your level of physical activity, the part of the world you find yourself in, the season, your income, how many other people you have to feed and a laundry list of qualifiers that only you know about yourself.

I’m guessing this is not the answer you were hoping for. It probably seems like taking all these factors—lets call it your health context—into account is going to make feeding yourself harder, not easier. But here’s the thing: your health context is not nearly as fragmented as the nutrition facts spilling out of Oprah’s empire or Special K advertisements. We are constantly being bombarded by nutritional information produced by people who have no interest in our well-being. No, none. Not even the people at Kashi. They have shareholders that they are accountable to, they need to grow every quarter, and they will do it at your expense. Food manufactures and the people they pay to advertise their products hype counterintuitive studies, label their products with patent nonsense, and trick you into wandering supermarket aisles for hours because are have a vested interest in keeping you confused and overwhelmed. That way, next time they début a useless food product with high profit margins, packed with fat, sugar, and salt, and plastered with promises (Protein! Fiber! Acai! Coconut Water!) and tell you that it will make up for all your previous food errors, you will be more likely to break down and buy their argument and their product. The longer we stay lost in the muck and details of these contradictory food facts, the longer those industries trying to sell us shit win.

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But you, you are invested in your own health. This is the underlying and unifying fact of your health context. Remember this each time you choose what food to buy or vitamins to take. Rather than complicate your purchasing decisions, it should simplify them.

Obviously, just caring about your health isn’t going to be enough. If it were, we wouldn’t be seeing the current rates of heart disease, diabetes, metabolic syndrome, childhood obesity and so on.

So what else goes into a guiding principle of food?

This is where I see common sense coming back into the picture. What do I mean by common sense? It’s a story from your grandma’s farm, it’s something you learned about another country, it’s what makes up the bedrock of a culture’s cuisine, it’s what feels right all the time, it’s what worked for you after years of doing it wrong, it’s what you wouldn’t be embarrassed to explain to someone on the other side of the world, it’s what’s different for everyone but also the same, it isn’t going to change with the next fad diet, it’s going to keep you and your kids healthy and alive, it’s sustainable and affordable and simple, it’s elusive but it isn’t a unicorn, it’s yours.

I can’t tell you exactly what your common sense is, but I believe that by talking about a common sense vision of food and sharing individual food knowledge we make our communal consumer identity stronger and more resilient against the exhausting and endless misinformation that comes out of the processed-food-industrial-complex. I think more and more people are looking for and returning to this kind of food knowledge and when I hear people talk about a new ‘food movement,’ I feel optimistic for this reason.

OK, that’s nice and fuzzy, I hear you thinking, but what about some examples?

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Well the poster above, put out by the US Food Administration during World War I, is a good start. These rules are flexible enough to mesh with the idiosyncrasies of each family’s dinner table. When I first saw this poster, I was struck by how straightforward and useful the advice seemed. Just good common sense.

Another is Michael Pollan’s oft quoted “Eat food. Not too much. Mainly fruits and veggies.”

Why are these suggestions different from what is on the back of a box of breakfast cereal? Maybe because Michael Pollan doesn’t make money every time you hear those three sentences and the Federal government, while it did have an agenda to limit food waste during a war, also had a duty to maintain the health and wellness of its citizens. That seems to be another common quality in common sense—it tends to come from people who aren’t trying to sell you something.

I believe in common sense. I think that the most compelling food movement advocates—Marion Nestle, Michael Pollan, Jamie Oliver, Michelle Obama—also believe in common sense. Yes, they sometimes say controversial things and everyone won’t always agree on the details. But we have forever to quibble over facts, like which fats are good and which are bad, what is a responsible serving size, how much red meat should you eat, is corn syrup a natural ingredient and seriously, what is the deal with women taking calcium supplements. But these details shouldn’t get in the way of overall balance, moderation, and a less manic relationship with our food.

We kept ourselves alive with way fewer resources for thousands of years and while you would be right to point out that quality of life and length of life were shorter then, common sense would dictate that somewhere between starving with no access to modern medical care and eating whatever you want whenever you want, no matter the fat, sugar and salt content or season and being totally dependent on modern medical care because of it—somewhere between those two poles is a healthy human who lives a good life and finds joy in food without really having to think about it.

I recognize that the constraints of income and access to fresh produce pretty much make the common sense point moot for some families. I wrote this post with the intention of empowering consumers and encouraging healthier choices where and when possible, knowing that it wouldn’t even begin to cover all of the obstacles consumers face getting healthy food on the table.

I also hope that, in the context of my other posts, this will not be construed as blaming consumers for lacking common sense as they continue to struggle with food purchases, meal preparation and their health. I take it as a given that the food landscape we currently inhabit is in no way set up in favor of consumers. Ultimately, while the responsibility shouldn’t be on us to outwit the multimillion dollar ad campaigns of large food companies and make up for the relaxed regulation of the agencies mandated with keeping our food supply safe, if we wait on industry and government action, we will miss out on the chance to take back our shopping carts and our health and live with the blissful privilege of not having to think so much about food anymore.

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WLF “In All Fairness” Advertorial Appears in National Edition of New York Times

This advertorial was featured on the op-ed page of the NYTs two days ago by the Washington Legal Foundation (tagline, “Advocate for Freedom and Justice”). Rather than share my thoughts on this creative piece of freedom and justice advocacy, here are three reactions from good friends:

  • “Pretty obvious where the money to fund these ads is coming from. I’m so sick and tired of the “freedom” marketing because the companies behind it are the ones taking away any type of choice. lskdjfslkdjflksdjalksdj.”
  • “I like how they condemn alarming catchy phrases and use the term “self-appointed diet overlords” in the same paragraph.”
  • “I’m guessing these guys just pulled their pro-smoking file and just pressed control replace cancer with obesity.”

Actually, I will share just one thought:

“The purported goal — reducing obesity — may be worthy, but their misguided approach will only succeed in enriching these self-appointed diet overlords at the expense of American consumers and their health.”

 

As a self-proclaimed self-appointed diet overlord, I just wanted to say that when I read the sentence above, and then thought about my paycheck, I got a little bummed out that maybe the other self-appointed diet overlords might be getting more enriched than me. I know it is wrong to covet another diet overlord’s income, but here I am wondering if I shouldn’t be charging more per condescending demonization and request tips next time I knock someone’s freedom soda out of their hand and shout “fat bomb” while trolling mall cafeterias. Maybe its time to rethink my pricing structure; “Let’s Sue!” bumper stickers don’t grow on trees, after all.

The WLF Legal Pulse

IAFMay20As part of its Eating Away Our Freedoms project, Washington Legal Foundation (WLF) today placed an advertorial on the op-ed page of the National Edition of The New York Times. WLF first debuted its “In All Fairness” advertorial column in 1998 in The Times, and it has appeared on the newspaper’s op-ed page over 150 times. The Times national edition reaches 75% of America’s population and according to one survey is read by 90% of major newspaper editors.

We encourage you to peruse the Eating Away Our Freedoms site and please consider signing up to receive updates as WLF supplements the site and continues to counter those “public interest” activists, regulators, and lawyers whose approach to reducing obesity enriches them at the expense of their intended beneficiaries.

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Two Coca-Cola documents for your consideration:

Exhibit A:

Coca-Cola’s “Beating Obesity Will Take All of Us” ad published in USA Today on 5/16. In it, Coke promises they will play an important role in the fight against obesity by 1) offering low and no-calorie beverage options in every market, 2) provide transparent nutrition information like featuring calories on the front of all of their packages, 3) help get people moving by supporting physical activity programs in every country where they do business, 4) market responsibility including no advertising to children under 12 anywhere in the world and 5) by “creating awareness around choice, helping consumers make the most informed decisions for themselves and their families, and by inspiring people everywhere to find the fun in the moment.”

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If I may, I am going to go ahead and translate:

1) “Offering low and no-calorie beverage options in every market” means sell diet soda where they hadn’t before, increasing sales of both diet and regular soda as a result. For example, while 41% of all Coca-Cola drinks bought in the US are for one of the brand’s low-calorie varieties, in China its estimated that diet drinks account for less than 10% of overall sales, leaving lots of room for growth (source here).

2) Saying “provide transparent nutrition information” when all you mean is “put calorie counts on the front of packages” is like saying “give everyone a new car” when all you mean is “show everyone a commercial for Carmax.com.” Front of pack labeling isn’t applause worthy, it’s becoming the norm in the food industry as food manufacturers are trying to pre-empt the FDA regulation that is being developed on this issue. There is still lots of nutrition information you won’t see on Coke labels, like how drinking one can of soda a day raises diabetes risk by 18% or how adults now consume 13% of their calories in the form of added sugar.

3) “Help get people moving by supporting physical activity programs in every country where we do business” is another way of saying “advertise all over the world in schools and gyms and parks and where ever people come together to do physical activity in their communities,” because you had better believe Coke is not going to host an event without plastering their name everywhere and handing out some of their products. And, while I don’t have the numbers, I am pretty sure that when you compare Coke’s spending on these feel-good activities to their entire operating budget for global marketing, the cost of “supporting physical activity programs” is pretty insignificant, unlike the returns.

A few years ago I spent some time tutoring in an elementary school in South Africa. Coke had graciously paid for the school’s sign in the front of the building, including their logo on the sign, because why be philanthropic if no one know’s whose doing the philanthropy? Unfortunately, the combination of poor diet and lack of proper health coverage in this community meant that many of the kids at the school had seriously rotted baby teeth. I learned later, speaking with a dentist in the States, that while the baby teeth fall out, this sort of damage also impacts the permanent teeth that follow. These kids needed toothbrushes, not soda. But that would have been real philanthropy.

4) “Market responsibly including no advertising to children under 12 anywhere in the world,” except when Coke doesn’t feel like it. See story about the elementary school above as well as Dr. Freedhoff’s article on Coke’s “Santa’s Helper” smart phone game designed for the 4+ crowd here.

And finally, 5) “Creating awareness around choice, helping consumers make the most informed decisions for themselves and their families, and by inspiring people everywhere to find the fun in the moment.” Restated? Corporate speak for blaming consumers for eating too much and moving too little. See previous post on Coke’s anti-chair commercial here.

In case the USA Today ad still has you feeling warm and fizzy about soda and reading this post actually has you thinking about grabbing a can to go with your lunch, here is Exhibit B:

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A 2011 document produced by Coca-Cola, detailing the increase in per capita consumption of Coke products in different countries around the world. In the lower left corner are the stats for worldwide consumption. In the two decades between 1991 and 2011, global consumption more than doubled. But in the US, consumption has stayed steady for the last 10 years, even falling slightly. This tells me two things.

1) Coke is in the business of selling Coke and they are very good at what they do. As a profit-making organization, there is no reason to think that they won’t do whatever they can to see Coke consumption double once again over the next 20 years.

2) That doubling isn’t going to take place in the supersaturated States and its going to take more then their low/no-calorie portfolio; Coke will need to focus its marketing of both low/no-calorie and regular beverages overseas to make that happen. Which is why they are happy to take out a whole-page ad in USA Today to brag about their anti-obesity initiatives; they weren’t going to convince American readers to drink an additional regular Coke today anyway.

“I know I can act today. Three times.”

Last week I went to see Michael Pollan speak about his new book, Cooked.

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I was happy to spend the evening in the choir, getting preached to by everyone’s favorite liberal foodie Berkeley professor in hipster shoes. Redundant, I know.

While The Omnivore’s Dilemma focused on the four ways human societies have acquired food (current industrial, big organic, self-sufficient farm, and hunter-gatherer), Cooked focuses on the four ways we manipulate that food once it reaches our kitchens (grill, bake, boil and ferment).

I haven’t gotten to the book yet (I am embarrassed to say I am still making my way though Salt, Sugar, Fat and, um, 9 months worth of New Yorker magazines), but from the articles and interviews I have seen so far, I am really looking forward to some advice, sass and optimism. Especially optimism. This policy area can be a real bummer sometimes. Between the quarter’s most egregious food labeling violations and the newest ad campaign by one of the 10 corporate behemoths hell-bent on filling the airwaves with misleading messaging, selling junk and lobbying Washington to protect their right to do so, sometimes I just want to cherry-pick my information and listen to a charismatic speaker tell me everything is going to be OK.

During the question and answer part of the reading, I was able to put the question to Professor Pollan directly. Here is what I asked him, more or less:

So by way of asking my question, let me explain the demographic that I come from. Its relevant, because it’s a demographic that is currently bucking trends in terms of the foods we are buying and the ways we are engaging with the food chain. I am a millennial, I work in food and nutrition policy at the Center for Science in the Public Interest, my friends and I brew beer and bake bread, we work at farmers markets and on farms on the weekends, I think my housemate is brewing a barrel of whiskey in my kitchen right now* and when we have kids we will probably feed them kimchi. But here is my concern: is this just a sourdough-starter-owning-weekend-butcher-whiskey-brewing-hipster-bubble that is going to burst because it isn’t relevant to the meat and potato Americans who represent a huge buying power in this country, or is this the beginning of a trend this is going to keep growing?

In response, generous in his optimism, Pollan said that while there would always be fanatics with any movement (he knows, he has met them), he believes that this movement will resonate with the bulk of Americans who will find genuine joy in buying real food, preparing it together and sharing it around the kitchen table. While the movement has difficult and justified ties to elitism at the moment, between SNAP programs that offer double the dollar at farmers markets, a new-found support of artisanal and local mom and pop shops, and the sheer sense of empowerment that comes from reclaiming your family’s meals from an industrialized food system that doesn’t care about your well-being, there is room in this bubble for everyone. He also noted that our current agricultural policies subsidize the frozen meal, making crappy food artificially cheaper, and disincentivize farm diversification. If we were to level the playing field, real food wouldn’t be cost-prohibitive for so many Americans.

Being the supremely talented author that he is, I will leave it to him to explain this optimism in more detail. The passage below is excerpted from a solid interview from The Atlantic, titled “The Wendell Berry Sentence That Inspired Michael Pollan’s Food Obsession.”

“When a blogger in Texas last year wrote about “pink slime,” there was an overwhelming public response and the company that produced the stuff nearly collapsed. This was terrifying to the food industry—who realized that, as strong as they are, they become vulnerable when people look up from their burgers and say “What the hell is in this?” And then: “You know what? I don’t want that stuff.” When that happens, an industry can be brought low overnight. There is great power in this. There is power, too, in growing and cooking your own food. …That’s the great thing about food as a way into the world—what we learn gives us so much influence. When people are more conscious about their food choices, they can change the food chain. They can change what happens on the farm. I think it’s one reason that so many people are finding their way to food as an interest and as a focus of their political energies. Food issues have a tremendous bearing on everything from the environment to public health to monopolization of the economy, and food activism is producing results that you can see. At a discouraging time, it’s a very empowering issue. We don’t have to wait for the government to figure it out—not that we don’t need to press on that front also—but long before Congress comes up with a good farm bill, people are creating new agricultural policies locally all over the country. You can do it in your own backyard.

We stand to gain so much by connecting these dots. We stand to regain our health. We stand to change the landscape of our agriculture: all the feedlots, the factory farms, closed. We stand to see a revival of farming, real farming, as they empty the feedlots and put animals back on real farms. Because people who see that world don’t want to support it—in the same way that people who saw “pink slime” don’t want to support it. It would be a complicated transition; it would not be easy. We’d need tens of millions more people working on farms to grow food the way I think most people would like to see it grown. We’d also see ourselves spending more money on food, and that’s very challenging for a lot of people. So it will take a revolution—not just in how we eat but how we live. But it offers us so much. A lot beyond a good conscience: a more beautiful landscape. Farms where you’d feel comfortable taking your kids. And healthier bodies, too.

When [Wendell] Berry says “eating is an agricultural act,” that’s a very empowering statement. He’s saying you have political power in your every day actions. When you decide what you’re going to eat, what you’re going to buy, you have real influence. That’s why this idea this idea has the potential to resonate with so many people. It’s certainly one of the reasons it’s resonated with me: I know can act today. Three times.”

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*At this point, Michael Pollan laughed and shushed me, pointing to Jill Biden, who was also in the audience. To any Feds reading this, the barrel is pretty small and the whiskey isn’t very good anyway, so I wouldn’t worry about it.

EVERYTHING YOU NEED TO KNOW ABOUT FOOD (Part 1 of ∞)

OK. So. My excuse for not blogging over the last two weeks is that TOO MANY THINGS. Lame excuse, I know. But for real, I have a 40 pg. document in Word of links to articles that probably only I think are interesting. Has anyone charted what the first 6 months of blogging looks like? I am just going to assume that this stage of wanting to write about everything and getting overwhelmed and going into hiding to watch my favorite Jamie Oliver clips on YouTube was totally normal and now over.

Among the many things I had hoped to share and didn’t get around to were some details on the Consumer Federation of America’s National Food Policy Conference, which I attended in Washington, DC. CFA works to advance pro-consumer policies at the Federal and state level and their annual NFPC brings consumer advocates, food industry and government together in one room to talk about agriculture, food and nutrition policy. The panels tackled so many meaty (ha!) issues —including immigration reform, food waste, and FDA regulation—that I couldn’t come up with any opinions about anything because I was too busy absorbing everything about everything. I learned a lot and want to pass some of the highlight along to you, because what’s the point of having a conference if the juiciest bits never make it out of the Capital Hilton?

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For starters, the top sponsors: Cargill, Inc., International Dairy foods Association, Nestlé USA, General Mills, Kraft Foods Group, and Wal-mart.

The conference opened up with Mike Taylor, Deputy Commissioner at the FDA, who, instead of getting to give a boring keynote speech which I think is what he had signed up for, instead got grilled by Helena Bottemiller, an awesome young spunky reporter from Food Safety News in an informal question and answer session. Among the hard-hitting questions: his conflict on interest given his past involvement with Monsanto and what is taking the FDA so long to come out with its really overdue rule-making on menu labeling, food labeling, serving sizes, sodium limits, GMOs, and finalizing the Food and Safety Modernization Act. To his credit, the Deputy Commissioner stuttered through the answer to the first question—saying he has gone on public record and written a number of papers on GMOs that don’t always align with Monsanto’s interests—and pointed to the Office of Management and Budget by way of answering the second. (Want to find out why OMB is behind so many delays in regulation, particularly food regulation? I recommend this great post by my coworker over on Food Day’s blog.)

During the Q&A it also came up that the FDA is pushing to levy inspection fees on the food industry, given the cash crunch from the simultaneous increase in mandate from the Food and Safety Modernization Act and the Federal budget cuts. Industry obviously doesn’t want these fees to happen and has gone on record as saying that “imposing new fees on food facilities would represent a food safety tax on consumers,” since they plan on immediately passing inspection fees along to consumers. This is annoying. E. coli free meat doesn’t grow on trees people! It costs money to keep our nation’s food supply safe, why shouldn’t industries have to shoulder some (all) of that cost? Because, shareholders, quarterly earnings, etc., etc., & blah blah blah. Whatever, I am annoyed.

Another issue on FDA’s table is Front of Pack labeling. If you don’t already know, front of pack labeling refers to any summary of the nutrition fact’s panel on the front of a food product. Here is an example:

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Basically it is the new way for companies to mislead consumers about the healthfulness of the foods inside. The only part of a food label that is subject to stringent regulation is the nutrition facts panel. Everything outside of that little white and black box is in food labeling wilderness. You would think the FDA has to sign off on what goes on food labels, both in and out of the nutrition facts panel, before they hit the market, but they don’t. They only really police the market retroactively and no one is actually checking every box of Cocoa Krispies to make sure they aren’t making bogus immunity claims, for example.

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The industry has figured out that consumers don’t know this and assume that anything that looks vaguely official looking was approved by the FDA. This is not to say that the front of pack labels are factually incorrect, but they are misleading. The official formatting, green check-marks and selective highlighting of ingredients and nutrition facts are carefully designed to make consumers think a serving size is larger than it actually is, doesn’t contain an unhealthy number of calories or amount of added sugar and that the highlighted fiber or potassium content distracts from the not so nutritious ingredients also lurking inside. The FDA has been slow to catch on, but they finally have, and Mike Taylor came as close as a Federal government employee can to promising that we should expect those regulations to come out within a year. Great quote, paraphrased, from Taylor: “We would like to regulate this kind of labeling so that consumers can find a portion of the front of pack labeling that is actually true.”

After the interview there was a panel on the “Future of Food Shopping and How Consumers are Changing.” An optimistic highlight: one of the panelists explained how over the last 50 years we have gone from shopping at Mom and Pop shops to grocers to supermarkets to hypermarkets (think Target or Wal-Mart) and predicted that the next step will be a return to the Mom and Pop shop. Fingers crossed. To cheer you up even more, here are two examples of exciting initiatives that consumer advocates are working on to make shopping easier for consumers:

  • The Food Trust, pretty much the coolest cat in non-profit nutrition advocacy, has launched a program that labels foods with three different stickers. Red stickers for “less often foods” like soda, orange for “sometimes foods” like juice, and green stickers for “always foods,” like water and low fat milk. That is some front of pack labeling I can get behind.
  • Rudd Center at Yale, which conducts indispensable research on obesity and marketing to children, is pushing a recommendation for supermarkets to offer a “family friendly” aisle in the stores. The aisle would basically have no crap in it, especially not at a children’s eye level. Imagine: a tantrum free shopping experience could be in our future.

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During the breakout panels I got to hear about food waste. Man. Reduce, reuse, recycle. We hear the most about that third one, but as eaters and cookers, we really ought to put some thought into the first two. I will put a post about reusing and reducing food on the to-do list. This panel made me think the most about my habits as a consumer and what I can personally do about the food that ends up in my trash at the end of the week. Daunting, but here are some things to be optimistic about:

  • Feeding America has started partnering with farmers and food processing factories to reduce food waste before it ever gets to the supermarket. For example, they recently worked with Del Monte to can the tops and bottoms of their peaches for donation, because these parts of the fruit are usually discarded because they don’t have the same uniform shape as the rest of the peach.
  • No matter how on top of it farmers and shippers and supermarkets are, there is a certain amount of food, called shrink, that will be too damaged to sell at the supermarket. Supermarkets try to offset the costs of these losses by using this damaged produce in creative ways. An apple a little too beat up for the display case goes into the Safeway salad bar and those fancy stuffed chicken breasts at the Whole Foods meat display would have otherwise been trashed. Some people might be worried about food safety issues, but if I would trust anyone to know when to draw the line with perishable foods, it would be the people in the business of buying, stocking and reselling them. I think this reusing of food is brilliant and something the stores should brag more about. Take away lesson? If you can introduce a cost incentive for eliminating food waste, the industry will get creative fast.

And here is a tip for what you can do in your own home:

-‘Sell by’ dates versus ‘best by’ dates. Maybe you know this already, but a refresher won’t hurt, because apparently 60% of Americans are getting it wrong. The ‘best by’ date is not for consumers. It is a message from the producer to the seller (i.e., Kraft’s to Wal-Mart, or Campbell’s to Harris Teeter), promising them that the product will meet the standards of the brand up until that date. Things like crunchiness, color and flavor, which differentiate Kraft’s or Campbell’s from the knockoffs. It is in the best interest of these companies that their products are only sold when they meet these standards to protect their brand’s identity. The ‘best by’ date does not speak to food safety standards, which are what the ‘sell by’ dates indicate (although these aren’t standardized). In the UK, to reduce consumer confusion, they have started hiding the ‘best by’ dates, incorporating the information into the bar code. So if you see a ‘best by’ date, ignore it. As for the ‘sell by’ date, use your best judgment. Please don’t sue me if you get food poisoning, but just give that juice an extra sniff before chucking it down the sink next time, OK?

And then there was lunch. Lunch was ridiculous. I guess it was to be expected because what would a DC conference be without corporate doublespeak? Here is what happened: instead of the hotel catering the way they always do at these kinds of conferences, Nestlé, one of the biggest corporate sponsors, rolled out a four-course meal made up entirely of their frozen dinner lines, Lean Cuisine and Stouffer’s. This wouldn’t have been so bad, except that while we were eating, we had to listen to this pseudo-French chef from Nestlé gargle on and on about how they use the freshest ingredients, have cutting edge culinary advancements, and how together, we can change the way Americans cook and eat. Calling bullshit wasn’t an option, so I started counting the ingredients in these oh-so-fresh-and-healthy convenience foods on the boxes Nestlé has kindly left displayed at each of the tables. Between the Thai spring rolls (minus the salsa); southwest grilled chicken salad (minus the SALAD); coconut-crusted salmon filet with ginger-lemongrass sauce, grilled pineapple and mango; and the Harvest apples I counted 139 ingredients. 139. The salad (again, minus the actual lettuce) had the most ingredients at 53.

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I was so grumpy from the lame food and patronizing corporate nonsense that I spent the next panel doodling on one of Nestlé’s stupid brochures for their new “balance your plate” initiative.

Image  I am sorry Nestlé, but you guys can’t be in on the conversation about a healthier America because your food has no place on a balanced plate. I’m not going to take you seriously, no matter what you do and no matter what you say, unless it’s the truth. Just be honest. You are the world’s largest food and drinks maker, in 2012 you posted 11.55 billion in profits, you are in the business of unhealthy food, and if it means you get to feed Lean Cuisine to a captive audience of a couple hundred and talk about your initiatives for 40 minutes, sponsoring these kinds of conferences pays for itself.

After lunch, there was an incredible panel about immigration reform and its impact on our food landscape. A lot to cover here, and I still need to do my homework on the background, so I am going to save the heart of the conversation for another post. One thing I will mention, because it came up both on this panel and a panel on the impact of natural disasters on our food supply was the following: when you buy a $10 six-pack of beer, 6 cents goes back to the farmer. The rest goes to marketing, packaging, and all the fancy additives and processing techniques that go into most modern foods before they make it to your table. Because this isn’t just about beer—over all, very little profit made from food and beverage sales in this country go back to the farmer. Even for milk, which you would think ends up on your table largely thanks to the farmer, only about 25% of the profits make it back to the farm, since most farmers have to pay to get the milk to the processing plant.

This is, on one hand, bullshit for the farmer. Their services are worth more, and it makes it awfully hard to convince Americans that farming is a viable career when food profits never make it back to the farm. And we need more farmers. A move away from a reliance on industrialized agriculture and a return to smaller, diversified farms will benefit farmers, our health, and the environment. On the other hand, all that marketing, packaging and additives protect consumers from volatile food prices. If the price of wheat doubles because of drought, or a late spring or wet fall, the price of your beer won’t double if only 6 cents was tied to the price of the wheat in the first place. Instead, the price will only go up by a few cents. Now I’m pretty shaky on matters of national finance and I don’t know what this tradeoff means from a policy perspective, so if there are any econ dorks (sorry, scholars) reading this who want to weigh in, by all means.

The conference also included a debate on sugar sweetened beverages. Michael Jacobson, Executive Director of CSPI, was on the panel along with a professor from the Food and Environment program at Tufts University, and my new favorite shit-stirrer, Harold Goldstein, Executive Director of the California Center for Public Health Advocacy (favorite quote: metaphor equating the oil BP dumped into the Gulf Coast with the sugar the soda industry is ‘dumping’ into the American market place). And somehow, someone managed to get Susan Neely, President and Chief Executive Officer of the American Beverage Association on this panel of liberal public health advocates and academics. OK, I’m super biased against the soda industry and was unlikely to like anyone the ABA sent. Also, being outnumbered 3 to 1 on a panel is going to make anyone look bad. But seriously, you would think that the President and CEO of the ABA would be an eloquent and powerful advocate for the soda industry. Instead, she was crazy-pants, very antagonistic and very unconvincing. She played the mom card HARD, which is unnecessary when no one in the room is in any way suggesting that being a mom and keeping your family healthy is easy. When asked why vending machines exist in schools, she stuttered, saying the schools benefit financially and it’s entirely up to schools to decide what they sell. The valid point was made that arguing that schools benefit financially from soda sales makes no sense, because the money is coming from the kids, so they might as well just pass around a hat for collections.

The last panel covered “Food Issues in the Age of Social Media.” Take away: industry is scared of millennials. Don’t underestimate the power of your tweet or Facebook post, these large corporations are finally listening and recognize that we as a demographic have no patience for misleading messaging or the withholding of important information.

Finally, Senator Mark Pryor, Chairman of the subcommittee on agriculture, rural development, FDA and related agencies, showed up for 15 minutes and used words like “stakeholder,” “bipartisan compromise,” and “community collaboration,” and was very successful in actually saying absolutely nothing.

After the conference ended I went out to lunch with a vegetarian and a vegan to this place called Lincoln (slogan: Food for the people by the people), a farm to seasonal-small-plate restaurant and had a salmon burger and some Brussels spouts. WHAT IS MY LIFE. And then a week later, that is to say, two days ago, I met Michael Pollan and we made eye contact and it was magical and I will tell you about it in my next post.

Phew.

Michelle. You know I love you. And the bangs look great. But you know who really needs a makeover right now? MyPlate.gov. Seriously. Someone go get Tim Gunn.

Mrs. Obama aka Mrs. Worldwide aka Mrs. 202 aka The Closer aka Love-You-In-Salamander in Chief. You know so much more about America than I do. You have shaken so many hands, held so many children, danced in so many school cafeterias, eaten in so many local food establishments, have probably been to South Dakota, and could most definitely pull off one of these. Whereas I drove through South Carolina that one time.

Tomato and avocado were booked, so USDA invited pineapple and papaya to the pita puke party instead!

But I am pretty sure that if you are trying to get Americans to eat healthier, you don’t want to open with this monstrosity. Canned fruit, spinach, cilantro, peanut butter, fat-free cream cheese, soy sauce and ‘reserved canned fruit juice’ all in a whole wheat pita pocket? It sounds like we are a packet of jello away from the culinary dark ages.

This would make a great Lady Gaga hat.

Lady Gaga, call me. I have an idea for your next hat.

Oh, I’m sure the Fruity Thai Pita Pocket is healthy and on budget. There are probably other things you had to take into account while designing these recipes that I am overlooking. But show me the person that is going to put that pita pocket disaster in their mouth, especially if they aren’t used to eating fruit and veggie based meals? With enough beer I could maybe eat 3/4 of one, but I’m willing to bet that the kids who order fries and chicken nuggets at lunch every day are not going to dive head first into a spinachcilantro-cannedfruit-soysauce-peanutbutter fiesta. Did someone at USDA just throw darts at a wall of ingredients to come up with this one?

There are a few good recipes on Myplate.gov’s recipe page, but the Fruity Thai Pita Pocket is not the only recommendation that sounds like the side dish that one aunt brought to Thanksgiving from 1953 to 1967. Sweet and Juicy Raisin Tapenade, Shrimp Confetti Salad Sandwich with Grapes, Celery with Apricot Blue Cheese Spread, Curried Chicken with Raisins and Mushrooms, and Ham and Swiss Breakfast Casserole are all raising red flags. Also, the Fruity Thai Pita Pocket is the first one you list. And about that list.

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Who designed this webpage? I know its the Federal government and there has been a pay freeze forever and the squester has been a major buzzkill, but no one pays interns anyway. Could you really not find anyone to look up photos of food on Pinterest for 15 minutes and spruce this baby up?

In all seriousness, there is so much potential here. What if Myplate.gov was a free resource with easy to use recipes that all met nutritional guidelines and were on budget with a reliable search engine organized by meal, ingredient, season and cost? Myplate.gov could feature celebrity chef recipes and video demos, partner with cooking schools and farmers, and there could be a place for people to upload photos when they try a recipe (#MamaObamaWouldBeProud).

Imagine a go-to site for families trying to figure out what to do for dinner. Because we need one of those. While its easy to find a recipe online, most sites don’t indicate a price tag or nutrition info for their recipes and searches as simple as “fruit salad” come up with results as godawful as this one.

Basically what I am saying, Mrs. Obama, is hire me. I will make this website look like the a .com instead of a .gov and then we can go have brunch and you can tell me about South Dakota.

Two screenshots from the McDonalds website for your consideration:

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This is an excerpt from a recent press release, on the McDonald’s nutrition page.

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This is a screen shot of McDonald’s breakfast options. Note the titillating color palate and thrilling variety of carbs you can eat between two slices of bread. And those two ‘healthy’ options with fruit at the top of the chart? The yogurt parfait has 23g of sugar and the oatmeal has 32g. Most adults should shoot for 44g in an entire day. Oh, and for the record, the 8g of whole grain in their new egg-white breakfast sandwich is pretty flimsy given the USDA recommends that adults eat 48g of whole grains daily.

Look, I’m not saying McDonald’s isn’t trying, or that you should never eat this stuff ever (OK, I’m sort of saying that), because I realize the reality is that this is what a lot of Americans on the run and on a budget are eating in the morning, and I guess some fruit is better (but like, only a tiny bit better) than no fruit. Fine. But I think its bullshit that McDonald’s is now marketing itself as healthy and nutrition minded, just because a few diced apple pieces swimming in brown sugar make a single appearance on the breakfast menu.

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Main screen at Mcdonalds.com. There are small chickens wandering the hillside in the background. Have you ever actually seen chickens wandering a hillside? No. Because that only happens in fairy tales and fast food commercials.

If they want to be a healthy food establishment, they should change their food. If they don’t want to change their food, they shouldn’t market themselves as a healthy food establishment. Is this really so much to ask?

Yes. It is too much to ask. Sorry. I take it back. It was unreasonable of me to expect that a company that is the fourth largest employer in the world, with more than 33,000 restaurants serving nearly 68 million people in more than 119 countries every day, should have to align its marketing with the services it actually provides.

More on that, and the aneurism-inducing “Meet Our Suppliers” ad campaign soon.

Seriously FDA, do you do ANYTHING?

“We have worked very hard to sort of figure out what really makes sense and also what is implementable.”

‘Sort of figure out’? Strong words from the FDA, justifying the three-year delay in finalizing a rule that will specify where and how nutritional information will be displayed on menus. Also, pretty sure ‘implementable’ is not a word.

A little background–the FDA is currently (read: for over two years) working to issue final menu-labeling rules governing how restaurants will provide nutrition information to consumers. The rules will affect companies with 20 or more locations operating under the same brand name.

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So next time you, the consumer, are trying to decide if it would be healthier to eat one order of Bistro Shrimp Pasta from The Cheesecake Factory, or three orders of Lasagna Classico plus an order of tiramisu from Olive Garden, you would be empowered to make an informed decision. Well with both options at over 3,000 calories, neither decision is a great one, but if you were counting calories, go with the lasagnas. (Don’t believe me? This and other insane calorie revelations here.)

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So if its going to help you, the consumer, and any other American trying to navigate a restaurant menu without totally blowing their recommended caloric intake for the day, why the delay? Well, according to FDA Commissioner Margaret Hamburg, “There are very, very strong opinions and powerful voices both on the consumer and public health side and on the industry side” and the issue “has gotten extremely thorny.”

Translation? The National Restaurant Association doesn’t want these rules finalized. Mississippi probably doesn’t want them finalized either. And the restaurants definitely don’t want the menu labeling rules finalized (although if they are finalized, they do want groceries and convenient stores to be regulated too, because less federal regulation is more, unless your competitors aren’t also being regulated…).

Why are these powerful interests against menu labeling? Because it would be a cost on business owners to tweak their menus. But let’s not forget that we are talking about companies with 20 or more locations. These are not your struggling Mom & Pop shops, and we aren’t exactly asking for space age innovation in food.

Bottom line: FDA, maybe its time to, you know, sort of figure it out?

Now whether this will all actually result in accurate menu labeling is a question for another day…

Well maybe the board wouldn't be this big if McDonalds stopped using 117 ingredients in its McWraps...

Well maybe the board wouldn’t be this big if McDonalds stopped using 117 ingredients in its McWraps…

What about the other 112 ingredients? Fooducate does some sleuthing on the new McDonalds McWraps

Another piece on the new “taste of freshness” McDonalds McWraps from the folks over at Fooducate (which is, by the way, an awesome resource for the next time you find yourself in a grocery aisle trying to decipher a nutrition label. I recommend you get the app). The article breaks down the nine one hundred and twenty one ingredients in the new McWrap.