Oh, SNAP! AMA says food stamps should not buy sugary drinks

Last week, the American Medical Association came out against the eligibility for sugary drinks to be purchased under the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), formerly known as food stamps.  Their new policy recommends that the federal government add sugary drinks to the list of current ineligible products such as tobacco, alcoholic beverages and prepared hot foods due to the known association between sugar-sweetened beverages and obesity.  AMA policy does not dictate any actual regulations, but their policies do represent the opinion of the largest group of physicians in the United States.

The controversy surrounding the inclusion of sugar-sweetened beverages, like soda, in SNAP benefits is not new.  In 2008, Congress debated restricting the purchase of sugared drinks with food stamps as part of the 2008 farm bill, ultimately deciding to reject the concept.  Then in 2010, Mayor Michael Bloomberg fought (and subsequently lost) to bar New York City’s 1.7 million recipients of food stamps from using them to purchase soda or other sugared drinks.

Those in opposition of such a restriction have several arguments:

1)      If sugary drinks become ineligible, what’s next? Cookies? Candy? Who determine what is healthful vs. not healthful?

While some food products may have a gray area in terms of health, the link between sugary drinks and poor health outcomes is clear.

2)      Any limitations on SNAP benefits are a direct result of the government trying to tell people what to eat and drink

A government nutrition program should provide foods that are actually nourishing, not empty calories that have been proven to be detrimental to health.  Removing products that are not food (similar to tobacco and alcohol) from eligibility does not stop beneficiaries from continuing to purchase the products, just not with taxpayer dollars.

3)      Removing sugary drinks from eligibility creates a stigma for SNAP beneficiaries

School breakfast and lunch programs, which are also administered by USDA, comply with nutrition standards that exclude sugary drinks, as they should. So does the Women, Infants and Children (WIC) program, which is limited to foods that deliver health benefits to pregnant and breastfeeding women and young children.  The only group that would really be put to shame with this type of regulation is the soft drink industry which reportedly receives $4 billion in taxpayer money each year from food stamps spent on soda.

4)      We should instead focus on incentives to encourage healthier food purchases

A Yale study from 2012 concluded that sugar-sweetened beverages account for the majority (58 percent) of beverages purchased under SNAP.  Making these products ineligible is the perfect incentive for families to spend more dollars on foods and beverages that provide real nourishment.  It also sends a clear message that sugary drinks are not healthful for regular consumption.

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We should not just be helping low-income people from going hungry but we should be making real efforts to keep them healthier.   SNAP has already made strides in increasing access to healthier foods through nutrition education programs and the inclusion of farmers markets as an outlet for using benefits.   Removing sugar-sweetened beverages from the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program is just one more step in encouraging healthier beverage choices.

The Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics and the Junk Food Industry

When I first decided to become a Registered Dietitian, I was very excited about the opportunity to join the team of nutrition experts that represent the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics (AND).  I assumed that the credential (and the professional organization behind it) would provide me with the skills and education necessary to help improve the nation’s food environment through public policy and research. Unfortunately, this has not been the case.  Instead, I find myself struggling to defend my credential, and wanting to distance myself from the very organization I was supposed to be depending on for guidance.

For those who are unfamiliar, the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics (formerly known as the American Dietetic Association) is the United States’ largest organization of food and nutrition professionals. Comprised primarily of Registered Dietitians, the organization is supposed to help advance the profession through research, advocacy and education.

However, last January, Michele Simon, author of Appetite for Profit and blogger for Eat Drink Politics, unveiled a report disclosing important details about the relationships between the AND and food companies like McDonald’s, Coca-Cola and Hershey’s. This report provided abundant evidence that partnerships with Big Food make it impossible for AND members to communicate clear and accurate nutrition messages.

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Americans are already bombarded with deceptive claims and misleading information regarding nutrition and health.  Most don’t realize that much of the advice they receive stems from the economic interests of food companies rather than actual nutrition science.   Big Food is not in business to protect or contribute to good health. These companies exist to make profits. Partnering with health organizations like the AND is just another means to put a health halo on products that are fundamentally unhealthful, and provides a false sense of trust to the public that the companies actually care about the health of their customers.

According to Simon’s report, the AND claims,

In its relations with corporate organizations, the Academy is mindful of the need to avoid a perception of conflict of interest and to act at all times in ways that will only enhance the credibility and professional recognition of the Academy and its members.

But, when food companies like Coca-Cola and McDonald’s (known for their junk food products) sponsor the Academy’s conferences and contribute continuing education to Registered Dietitians, it is impossible for the RD credential not to lose integrity in the eyes of the public.  Furthermore, it is hard to believe that there is no bias in the information and research that is presented. You can’t expect an organization accepting funding from fast food companies to tell the public to eat less fast food. Instead, they use messages like, ‘all foods fit’ or ‘everything in moderation’, that continue to confuse consumers.

It is truly unfortunate that the reputation of a credential we have worked so hard for (and deeply value) has become tarnished thanks to some measly monetary contributions by Big Food.  Thankfully, I discovered an organization a few months ago comprised of over 4,000 Registered Dietitians, health professionals and conscious consumers that not only feel as I do, but are striving for change. Dietitians for Professional Integrity was created by several RD’s, working hard to convince the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics to cut ties with food companies that contribute to our nation’s poor health. In fact, just a few days ago, the organization released a petition, which will be formally presented to the Academy at their next Food and Nutrition Conference and Expo in October.

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Even if you are not a Registered Dietitian, please consider signing on to this petition. Nutrition professionals, the clients we serve, and the public deserve nutrition information and education free of bias and influence from junk food companies.

5 Misleading Messages in Coke’s Latest Anti-Obesity Ad

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Recently, the Coca-Cola company unleashed a frenzy of media activity surrounding the company’s global plan to tackle obesity.  Their attempts have been dismal, including several television ads that divert attention from the role of sugary drinks on the obesity epidemic, instead focusing on consumers’ responsibility to engage in more physical activity.

Their latest ad (below) is full of deceptive claims about calories and the physical activity required to burn them off.

Here are 5 of the misleading messages that immediately caught my attention:

1. The beginning of the commercial explains that you will need to spend 5 minutes doing each of the activities in the ad to burn the calorie amounts displayed on the screen.  If you happen to miss this message (which would be easy to do), one might assume that you would burn 7 calories giving a quick hug, or 12 calories zipping up a dress.  You won’t.

2. The commercial  implies that the activities you do everyday, like getting dressed or shouting at someone,  will quickly add up and burn off  any of the measly calories you gain from drinking the refined sugar in Coke, ultimately suggesting that burning calories is easy.   It isn’t.

3. The ad tries to explain (which it doesn’t do very well) that if you spend 5 minutes doing each of the 10 activities in the commercial, you will promptly burn up the 160 calories in a 13.5 oz. bottle of Coke.  When was the last time you saw a 13.5 oz. bottle?  If you drink the more common 20 oz. bottle of Coke, it would require performing each activity for 7.5 minutes to burn the 240 calories you consumed.  Spending 7.5 minutes hugging, shouting or getting dressed might be a challenge.

4. Towards the end of the commercial, the ad suggests that enjoying life requires Coke.  I get it. This is advertising, and Coke has long been known for advertising which equates drinking Coke with happiness.  But, the company claims they are making attempts to tackle obesity.  If being healthy is part of how you enjoy life, Coke will not help you.

5. The commercial conveniently ignores the fact that if you just don’t drink Coke, you won’t need 10 activities to burn off the calories.

Thanks for nothing, Coke. Try again.

Food Label Frenzy: How Food Companies Profit from Your Healthy Intentions

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When it comes to food, the word ‘local’ has become synonymous with the local foods movement. The term ‘locally grown’ SHOULD refer to foods sold relatively close to where they were produced.  But when it’s used in ad campaigns for companies like Philadelphia Cream Cheese as seen below, you know it has lost all significance.

While I haven’t seen this particular buzz word on food labels yet, I’m assuming it is only a matter of time.  Food companies love those trendy little words and phrases, like ‘all-natural’ and ‘made with whole grain’, because they are quick to catch the eye of the health-conscious consumer, and help sell more products.   But, these claims can also confuse and mislead.  Most have little or no real meaning, and are an easy disguise for what is REALLY hiding in our food.

This slideshow will show you 10 of the industry’s favorites, and hopefully stop you from being duped on your next visit to the grocery store.

McWeight-Loss: Oh, Please.

At it’s most recent annual shareholders meeting, McDonald’s was once again faced with criticism that it is a purveyor of junk food that markets to children.  Speakers from the advocacy group, Corporate Accountability International, health professionals, parents and 9-year-old Hannah Robertson used the meeting as a means to confront CEO, Don Thompson about the companies poor practices.  Thompson went to great lengths to defend the company, mostly with outright lies about how the company sells ‘high-quality’ products and doesn’t market to children.

Michele Simon, public health lawyer and the author of the book Appetite for Profit countered his arguments in this outstanding blog post titled,  Top 10 lies told by McDonald’s CEO at annual shareholders’ meeting. It is a must read.

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Riding on the heels of this altercation, I was shocked and disgusted to discover Thompson’s latest attempt to protect McDonald’s image.  Over the last few days, several media outlets have been reporting news of the CEO’s alleged  ’20 pound weight loss’ which he claims included daily consumption of McDonald’s food.

As you might have noticed from my previous post on Coca-Cola, when the junk food industry starts handing out diet advice and weight loss tips, it really gets my blood boiling.  All they are doing is making attempts to clean up their image, sell more products, and distract the public from the fact that the products they create, by-and-large, are detrimental to our health.

How can Thompson, in good conscience, talk about eating McDonald’s and losing weight while simultaneously introducing products like the Mega Potato in Japan? This ‘side item’ is the equivalent of two large fries stuffed into one container and packs 1,142 calories (the largest amount of calories any single McDonald’s item has contained in the company’s history.)

The fact is, the majority of the food in McDonald’s product portfolio contains ingredients that are high in fat, sugar and salt, and low in fiber and vitamins. McDonald’s food also contains many chemical additives, including propylene glycol (a less toxic version of anti-freeze), and azodicarbonamide (most commonly used in the production of foamed plastics.)

Losing weight isn’t easy, especially when we are constantly being handed conflicting advice about how to do it.  Maybe Thompson did lose some weight; he is not the first person to claim that it can be done while eating fast food.  But, weight loss is not equivalent to being healthy.  If he ate less calories and exercised (as he claims), then yes, weight-loss is possible even when you are eating a lousy diet.  But, that doesn’t mean you should do it.