Marion Nestle’s message on Food Politics: We need social solutions

Last week, I had the privilege of participating in a presentation from Marion Nestle at New Haven’s International Festival of Arts and Ideas.  Marion is a professor in the Department of Nutrition, Food Studies, and Public Health at NYU, a renowned food policy advocate, and author of one my favorite books, Food Politics.  Her research examines scientific and socioeconomic influences on food choice, obesity, and food safety, emphasizing the role of food marketing; so you can imagine my excitement about seeing her speak.

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Much of the information that Marion presented was not new to me, however, I still found her messages to be powerful and motivating.

First, Marion outlined how we have gotten ourselves into the obesity epidemic that we currently face:

  • Since 1980, the number of calories available in our food supply have increased to twice the average need per person per day.
  • Dietary intake is up 200 calories per person per day.  This is according to what individuals report, which as we know, is probably lower than what is actually consumed.
  • Federal policy (including corn and soybean subsidies) have lead to processed junk foods that are cheaper than raw fruits and vegetables.
  • Food companies have to report to Wall Street every 90 days.  In this heavily scrutinized and competitive market, companies have to continue to sell more in order to grow, which means increasing the amount of food that consumers take in.
  • Food marketing is loosely regulated (mostly by the food companies themselves),  allowing for a lot of deception and manipulation, especially for our most vulnerable populations — children and minorities.
  • Companies use health claims like “fat-free”, “cholesterol-free”, and “sugar-free” which studies have shown trick consumers into treating the products like they are also “calorie-free”.
  • Junk food products are showing up everywhere: Drug stores, Office supply stores, etc.  There are very few places you can go without at least finding a vending machine filled with candy, snacks and sugary drinks.
  • We live in an environment that encourages us to eat more.  Exercising personal responsibility doesn’t stand a chance in this type of environment.
  • Food companies have drastically increased portion sizes of their meals since the 1950′s.  The CDC released a great infographic to display this:

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  • Even if they wanted to, the food industry can’t make any changes to their products and practices if it will negatively affect their bottom line.

So what does all this mean? Should we all just accept defeat in this obesigenic environment? Not according to Marion.

Her solution is twofold:

1) Vote with your fork:   Exercise your power as a consumer.  McDonald’s doesn’t make cheap hamburgers because laws require them to. They make cheap hamburgers because people buy them. Every time you buy a food product, you are, in essence, voting for the company that produced, packaged, and marketed it.  Every time we spend money, the recipient of our dollars gets the message that we approve of their product and we want more of it. But the opposite is also true.

Even more importantly…

2) Vote with your vote: Changing our food environment requires social solutions, not just personal responsibility.  We need to educate consumers through menu labeling, media campaigns and honest food labels.  We need restrictions like nutrition standards for schools and foods marketed to children.  We need taxes on harmful products like sugary drinks to deter over-consumption.  We need to restructure government subsidies to  make healthful, unprocessed foods cheaper.  We even need the occasional ban for dangerous industry-created substances like trans-fats.

While the concepts are simple, actually implementing them is much more challenging.  For starters, we need legislators and policy makers that are more interested in public health than corporate health, and a constituency to back them up.

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If you haven’t read any of Marion Nestle’s work before, I highly recommend checking out her blog. Michael Pollan ranked her as the #2 most powerful foodie in America (after Michelle Obama), and Mark Bittman ranked her #1 in his list of foodies to be thankful for.  I couldn’t agree more.

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.

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.

Public Health Campaigns Tackling Childhood Obesity: The Bad vs. The Good

Last year, Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta released a highly controversial anti-obesity ad campaign aimed at parents of overweight and obese children.  While the ads were meant to draw attention to the childhood obesity epidemic, their effectiveness was called into question by many parents and health experts, myself included.  The intentions of CHOA may have been good, but the campaign seemed much more likely to increase stigmatization against overweight children and make them feel ashamed of their bodies, rather than encourage healthy habits.

Here is an example of one of their ads, in case you missed it.

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In response to this campaign, Rebecca Puhl, PhD, director of research and weight stigma at the Rudd Center for Food Policy and Obesity at Yale stated , “Messages that focus on promoting specific health behaviors are likely to be more effective” than messages focused on weight.

Which is exactly what Contra Costa County is doing with their newly released ad campaign:

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For several reasons, I love this campaign.

First, as mentioned above, it focuses on a single health behavior, reducing children’s consumption of sugary drinks.

Second, it is clearly targeting juice ‘drinks’, as opposed to soda (which most parents know isn’t healthy).  Juice products, even those with added sugar and artificial sweeteners, have developed a health halo in America, thanks in part to some strategic marketing by the food and beverage industry. Sure, a small amount of 100% juice is fine for kids every once in awhile, but juice provides a high amount of calories packed into a small portion and lacks the fiber and nutrients that whole fruit provides.

I also like that the campaign mentions all of the issues associated with over-consumption of sugary drinks including cavities, weight gain, and chronic disease.

While the effectiveness of mass media public health campaigns varies, at least this sets a positive example for other organizations looking to develop something similar for their own communities.

Coca-Cola and the fight against obesity

Over the last few weeks, the soda giant, Coca-Cola has been all over the media touting their new commitment in the fight against obesity. Is this a real attempt at being part of the solution or just a public relations stunt to dodge criticism of their sugary, obesigenic products? My guess is the latter.

Let’s take a look at their efforts.

First, Coke released a few commercials such as this, putting all the focus of the obesity problem on individuals and their lack of physical activity.  Note: there is not a single obese person is this commercial:

Next, Coke introduced this infographic, which blames obesity on our consumption of chicken dishes, grain based desserts, and breads, conveniently leaving out the fourth biggest calorie contributor to the American diet: You guessed it, sugar-sweetened beverages.  It also focuses on the old, outdated concept that all calories are created equal, and that calories-in vs. calories-out equates to weight loss. As a registered dietitian, I can assure you that there is a big difference between consuming 100 calories worth of the hyperprocessed carbohydrates found in soda, and 100 calories worth of high-fiber fruit or beans.

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Then, just a few weeks ago, Coke began to lay out the details of their new global obesity-fighting campaign.  This plan includes:

  • Offering low or no-calorie beverage options in every market
  • Making calories more visible on the front of the bottle
  • Stopping advertising to children under 12 everywhere in the world (for years they have claimed to already be doing this in the US, though it has been proven that they are not very good at at it)
  • Promoting exercise and healthy lifestyles

Coke’s website indicates a few examples of these efforts to promote physical activity:

  • Coke will give out Coca-Cola branded soccer balls at major events
  • Coke will distribute pedometers via their MyCokeRewards program
  • Coke is asking families to be active, by turning fitness activities into votes for parks to win recreation grants
  • Coca-Cola “happiness trucks” will drive around “inspiring people to get on their feet and move to the beat” by playing music at dance and fitness events across the country
  • Sponsoring a youth baseball clinic

I would argue that at least half of these supposed “commitments to contribute to health” easily qualify as more marketing for Coke. Furthermore, none of these efforts address the real issue: Americans consume too many calories from sugary drinks.

If Coca-Cola REALLY wanted to be part of the anti-obesity solution, they could:

  • Reduce portion sizes instead of lobbying against efforts like the one introduced by Mayor Bloomberg in New York City.
  • Support soda taxes
  • Stop fighting attempts to remove vending machines and soda marketing in schools
  • Stop infiltrating professional health organizations like the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics with biased research that ignores the proven link between sugar-sweetened beverages and poor health outcomes.

But, why would they? Their business is to sell more Coke.

As if you needed any more reasons to call this campaign a sham, I’ll give you three:

1. Coke continues to form partnerships, encouraging the consumption of excessive amounts of sugary soda.

2. Coke finds sneaky ways to disguise more marketing as an act of philanthropy.

3. Coke’s CEO, Muhtar Kent, participated in this VERY uncomfortable interview with CBS, where he seems to be having trouble answering basic questions about the controversy surrounding their anti-obesity campaign.