Friday, September 23, 2011

Food Politics

I finally finished reading "Food Politics" by Marion Nestle last month. I'm not gonna lie, it's kind of a tough read, but definitely worth it.

Basically, the whole point of the book is to bring attention to the fact that the FDA basically has no power and every time it tries to assert itself, it loses even more ground. Nestle discusses this from several different angles and also gives a rough time line of what the FDA has done (or been stopped from doing) over the last 40 or so years.

What was especially disparaging was the way food companies began being able to put "health claims" on their packaging and in their advertising, mostly thanks to the supplement industry. The supplement industry helped build a grassroots effort to allow consumers the "right to choose" what is best for them. After the passage of the Dietary Supplement Health and Education Act of 1994 (DSHEA), the supplement industry was allowed to put health claims on their products, even if those claims had little or no scientific evidence to back them up. Following this was the creation of functional foods, the sole purpose of which is to act as a "healthier" alternative to traditional food. Companies marketing functional foods made the claim that these foods had added supplements and under DSHEA, they had the right to advertise the things that made them so "healthy."And so they did. And now everything in the supermarket seems to have one health claim or another on it.

Furthermore, the FDA seems to be blocked from every possible side. Nestle talked about her time working on the Surgeon General's Report on Nutrition and Health, and how she was explicitly told she would not be allowed to make any recommendations that would suggest that a person eat less of any particular food because the food industry would pull its financial support from the elected officials responsible for its release. As such, Nestle had to resort to attacking specific nutrients rather than types of food. Instead of telling people to eat less red meat, she had to say "Choose a diet low in saturated fat." These types of statements are confusing to consumers and allow other equally unhealthy foods to take advantage of advertising their low-fat status (even though they are full of sugar or high fructose corn syrup). Even more interestingly, the FDA has no control over what gets put in advertising that is not on the package, because that has to go through the FCC.

What's worse is that the FDA has 120 days from when a food company petitions to put a health claim on its product to determine if the claim is accurate and must prove it is inaccurate within that time frame in order to prohibit its use. If the 120 days expires, the claim is automatically approved. And should the FDA later determine the product is unsafe, the FDA can't actually do anything about it. They can only "request" that a food company recall the product. As you can imagine, the FDA is totally underfunded for such a task and so most of these petitions go through without so much as an eyelash batted at them.

Nestle's book is very technical, so it's a slow read. But the information is invaluable and really makes me think carefully about the health claims I hear, where I hear them, and who is paying for them. As Michael Pollan said, if a food makes a health claim, it probably isn't real food. Words to live by right there.

In other book news, I'm currently working on "The Story of Sushi" by Trevor Corson, which is mostly a bookumentary on a group of aspiring sushi chefs. Most of it is sort of funny stories about their time at sushi school, but there are a lot of interesting bits about how sushi is made traditionally and how sushi has changed over time and since its arrival in the United States. I don't have much time for it now that school is started, but I'm slowly working my way through it. I also bought a fun book called "Insanewiches" by Adrian Fiorino, which is basically a picture/cook book of crazy sandwiches. Not all of them are healthy (Most notably the Quadruple Down, featuring four fried chicken breasts, bacon, cheese, mayo, etc. I'm having a heart attack just looking at the picture), but there are many that are at least reasonably good for you. And they're cute. So I will probably make some and post them on here at some point.

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