Soda, Celebrities and Sell Outs

pepsi sign

I wrote this piece two years ago on my urwhatueat blog, but I feel it needed to be updated and resurfaced.  So here it is.

A few years ago, Mark Bittman wrote: “Why Do Stars Think It’s O.K. to Sell Soda?” This was in response to Beyonce’s TV ad selling Pepsi to the masses. I couldn’t agree more. It is maddening actually. With the current culture being so obsessed with all-things celebrity, you would think that actors, musicians, and athletes would use that position, an enormously powerful one, to make positive change in the world. I was really surprised and disappointed to see one of my favorite actors, Steve Carell (with Cardi B and others), doing a Pepsi commercial during the 2019 Super Bowl yelling that Pepsi is “okay!” But is it Steve?

One out of every 4 people are overweight or obese globally – approximately 2.1 billion people. This “globesity” pandemic touches everyone including young children and teenagers. Obesity has more than doubled in children and quadrupled in adolescents in the past 30 years and now more than one third of children and adolescents were overweight or obese.

So what does obesity have to do with soda? Well…the evidence is pretty cut and dry at this point. Some would argue, and are often “paid” to do so, that soda doesn’t make a dent as a contributor to our waistlines but that is just hogwash. Much of the deleterious effects are due to the high content of sugar in these products. One single 12-ounce can of soda contains three-quarters of the daily added sugar the World Health Organization deems as safe. We know three things about soda and other sugar-sweetened beverages (SSBs such as soda, energy, sports drinks, sweetened teas):

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  1. Serving sizes have increased: Before the 1950s, standard soft-drink bottles were 6.5 ounces. Now, 20-ounce to 42 ounce bottles are the norm.

  2. People everywhere are drinking more soda: In one decade, calories from sugary beverages increased by 60% in children ages 6 to 11, and sugary drinks (soda, energy, sports drinks) are the top calorie source in teens’ diets.

  3. Soda does contribute to obesity and diabetes: Frank Hu at Harvard outlined the studies that make the case. Recent meta-analyses show that higher intake of SSBs among children was associated with 55% higher risk of being overweight or obese compared with those with lower intake. Another meta-analysis showed that one to two servings per day of SSB intake was associated with a 26% greater risk of developing type 2 diabetes compared with occasional intake (less than one serving per month). And two large randomized control trials showed that reducing consumption of SSBs significantly decreases weight gain and adiposity in children and adolescents.

Convinced yet? Unfortunately, some of the top-selling artists and athletes are clearly not convinced or just don’t care. Instead, they have sold their souls to the soda companies. Not that some scientists are any better. This whole fiasco of soda companies funding science and pushing the product in emerging economies is just beyond me. With all the commoditization of everything on the planet, isn’t there anything that remains pure and of sound truth? Science should remain untouched, un-monetized: an “immuno-priveleged” place where you just don’t tamper with evidence. Marion Nestle, professor at NYU, has written a whole book on this entitled “Soda Politics” highlighting the perverse tactics used by soda industries to fund and push their product on the public. But I digress…

Selling products with saccharin-sweet pop music is so ubiquitous in our culture that you can even take quizzes on which celebrity sold Coke or Pepsi. Not sure the point of that but indeed a good time waster.

The 1980s saw pop music come to life (and further exploited) through our TV, not just our record players (cassette tapes in those days) thanks in large part to MTV. Commercials or mini videos followed. As an 80s teenager, the first massive star I remember selling soda was Michael Jackson and he took a pretty decent pop song, Billy Jean, and changed its lyrics from “Billy Jean is not my lover” to “You’re the Pepsi generation.” Swell. But it all didn’t work out so well for Mike. Remember the hair catching fire incident not to mention other controversies…Next up. Madonna aka self-proclaimed #rebelheart. Dancing in lingerie in front of burning, Catholic crosses and kissing a black Jesus proved to be a bit too racy for Pepsi in which her ad was banned. Mamma mia.

With each decade, the hits and the soda sales just escalated. Britney Spears, Beyonce, One Direction for both Pepsi and Coke (isn't that a conflict of interest?), Selena Gomez (sipping the slurpy stuff from a Coke bottle with a straw got over 7 million likes!) and Taylor Swift, to name a few. But Taylor is okay because she promotes diet soda. Taylor – don’t you know about the implications of diet soda on the profile of the microbiome? Sigh…

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CSPI, a DC nutrition watchdog, published a list of celebrities, what they promote, and twitter feeds like Pittbull’s elegant tweets of poetry: “Hanging out at Club23 with Dr. Pepper.”  Nas and Drake for Sprite – Obey your thirst. In the ridiculous video, showing lots of young African American men drinking soda, Drake actually credits Sprite with his success. Maybe he should give himself more credit instead of belittling his talent to something so nutritionally deficient. Even the dead cannot RIP. I saw the below ad in the Bronx. Who gave Sprite permission to use Biggie’s image? His estate? Is that even legal?

Kendall Jenner, one of the Kardashians, did a Pepsi ad last year, that infuriated the #blacklivesmatter (BLM) movement. At the end of the commercial, Kendall walks to the front of the protest line, and hands a police officer a Pepsi. There is an exchange of peace, love and understanding. The crowd cheers on Kendall, who has saved the day, ending any resentment and policy brutality. Indeed art imitates life with this ad taking inspiration from a photo of a specific black woman, Leisha Evans, bravely standing up to riot gear adorned police at a BLM protest in Baton Rouge.  Live bolder, live louder, live for now. "Pepsi was trying to project a global message of unity, peace and understanding. Clearly, we missed the mark and apologize." Um…yah.

What makes this so infuriating is that they are targeting young, African Americans. But African Americans are not untouched by the obesity epidemic and often, suffer significantly more than other races due to poor access to healthy foods, poverty and inequity. Some stats in case you don't believe me:

  • African American adults are nearly 1.5 times as likely to be obese compared with White adults.

  • 47.8% of African Americans are obese compared with 32.6% of Whites

  • More than 75% of African Americans are overweight or obese compared with 67.2% of Whites

  • 35.1% of African American children ages 2 to 19 were overweight, compared with 28.5% percent of White children

#BlackLivesMatter – indeed they do. And if we continue to push junk food and soda on populations, racial health inequities will continue to persist.

On one hand, I understand the pull of profit. Celebrities make bank with these commercials. We could equally criticize all the sports players who promote equally unhealthy sugar sweetened beverages (Gatorade etc) and movie stars promoting fine Japanese whiskey (make it, Santuri time), but picking on pop stars is fun. And they earn so much money already. One Direction, a British pop boy band, was the highest grossing band in 2017 due to touring, which of course is always sponsored by somebody. Do they need to sell Toyota, Coke, and everything else that comes along, to sell their songs and get teenagers to come to their concerts?

I am not judging them. Well, maybe I am. I bet they are all great human beings and many have promoted important causes (I better say this or the 1D fans will send me hate mail). One Direction is pushing Action 1 which is getting the young generation to take action and raise their voices to what future they want in the post 2015 development agenda. Commendable. Taylor Swift in her own right is empowering young women #GirlPower! The millennial generation, which Taylor and others are 'labeled' as, is impressive. I know. I teach them every day. What bothers me is the selling of their songs – their “art” – to sell soda. Why? They should really start thinking about their fans. If they want them to continue buying their records, going to their movies, and going to their shows, they should want their pre-pubescent and adolescent fans to be healthy. Especially our girls who are particularly vulnerable to obesity, with life-long repercussions.

We know celebrities care about their own health. They gotta look good with 25million+ twitter followers watching their every move. Most popstars are on special diets, have brutal trainers, do yoga and soul cycle. They probably don’t drink soda or for that matter, consume any sugar. Because well, that is what their personal nutritionist advised them to do…And advice given by "nutritionists to the stars" is ALWAYS of sound scientific evidence (Think Beyonce + Cleanse).

And maybe it is all just a bit unethical to be pushing soda on children? Marketing junk food and soda to children is generally considered pretty immoral in some circles, and wreaks of the same tactics used by tobacco to get kids to smoke. Check out this Coke 2018 ad called The Wonder of Us that promotes “the diversity of youth” and “there is a different coke for all of us.” Rafael Acevedo, the group director for Diet Coke in North America said “Millennials are now thirstier than ever for adventures and new experiences, and we want to be right by their side. We're making the brand more relatable and more authentic.”

Maybe celebrities need to be held accountable to what they are selling and to who?  Young popstars should take a page from the songbook of Neil Young. Or at least watch "This Notes for You" and his rip on the commercialism of rock and roll.

 Ain't singin' for Pepsi


Ain't singin' for Coke


I don't sing for nobody


Makes me look like a joke


This note's for you.

 

Well sung Neil Young.          

Food Bytes: Weekly Nibbles from Mar 4 - 24

Food Bytes is a weekly blog post of “nibbles” of information on all things food and nutrition science, policy and culture.

The Chicago Council on Global Affairs released their annual report. This year focuses on water: From Scarcity to Security: Managing Water for a Nutritious Food Future. There are lots of nuggets on the links of water to food and nutrition. Definitely worth a read.

IFPRI has also launched a new book: Agriculture for improved nutrition: Seizing the momentum. I contributed a chapter on biodiversity and its importance for food and nutrition security.

I always like what Bee Wilson writes. She recently wrote a great piece in the Guardian on how modern food is killing us. The grape story is an interesting analogy of how our food system has changed.

I just can’t help myself, but the EAT Lancet continues to get press. This article hones in on how it spurred a global debate. Great. It did its job. Keep debating! The Guardian is going a bit nuts on the diet side. They also published a recent piece on “peak beef.” And the Hopkins HUB, published an article on proteins of the future where they warn us to “get ready for a menu of lab-grown steaks, "bleeding" plant burgers, and cricket smoothies!”

Speaking of animal source foods, eggs seem to be bad for us once again. The nutrition science field is just one big teeter totter. This JAMA study shows that eggs increase cholesterol and cardiovascular mortality.

If Africa doesn’t have it tough enough these days, my heart goes out to Mozambique with the cyclone devastation, the armyworm seems to be eating its way across the continent destroying staple crops like maize. Let’s hope R & D can be ramped up quickly with solutions.

I am a closet Chipotle lover and Tamar Haspel outlines the woes the chain has been dealing with.

Two other interesting papers came out last week. One is unpacking stunting - faltering of linear growth in children. The other is a paper in the journal I edit, Global Food Security, on the use and interpretation of dietary diversity indicators in nutrition-sensitive agriculture literature.

In the world of food ethics, with colleagues at Hopkins and Columbia University, we published two papers. The first is in the Oxford Handbook of Public Health Ethics. The chapter focuses on three key ethical challenges in the nutrition public health sphere: the prioritization of key actions to address the multiple burdens of malnutrition, intergenerational justice issues of nutrition-impacted epigenetics, and the consequences of people’s diet choices, not only for humanity but also for the planet. In the second paper, we unpack the meaning of nutrition and demonstrate that a standalone right to adequate nutrition does indeed exist in international human rights law as a sum of other rights. This right to nutrition is, essentially, the sum of the human rights to food, health, education, water and sanitation, a healthy environment, information, political participation, and social security, along with rights ensuring adequate protection of and nondiscrimination against specific groups, such as women, children, and indigenous peoples.


Nutrition and Agriculture Research: Some Thoughts

I recently was asked to provide some commentary at the International Food Policy Research Institute (IFPRI) at the ARENA-II (Advancing Research on Nutrition and Agriculture) project policy seminar. I thought I would post my speaking notes on what I think is a really fascinating set of research findings stemming from the project. The seminar presented new research on food markets and nutrition including cross-country studies of the costs of nutritious foods and nutritious diets as a whole, and case studies of fish, dairy, and poultry products. The event can be watched here.

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ARENA is trying to understand markets in low-income contexts. Markets play a key role in delivering food and nutrition, even for poor and remote rural households. But nutrient-rich foods, especially animal-sourced foods, are very expensive in poor countries, suggesting that markets for perishable but nutritious foods are not functioning well. Both scientific research and real-world programs have largely focused on farm-level interventions to diversify household production and consumption, not recognizing the important role of market purchases.

The major findings coming out of ARENA:

1. Nutritious foods are typically very expensive sources of calories in low income countries, although there are exceptions.

2. Consumption patterns are strongly associated with prices - price variations explains a LOT of the gap between low and high consumers.

3. Indirect evidence that non-price factors (also implicit price factors) matter a lot: e.g. refrigeration and water quality.

4. No single solution for improving affordability or increasing consumption:

  • Eggs: domestic productivity is key, often improving feed sectors (maize, soybean, fishmeal).

  • Dairy: production in some countries, but trade in others. Markets work incredibly badly in rural areas.

  • Fish: cheap and nutritious but under-appreciated by consumers.

  • Domestic and international value chains very important, but also important to think about industrial policy: e.g. How do we create a viable modern dairy industry that delivers affordable safe milk to both rural and urban consumers?

My talking points:

Diets are significant risk factors of morbidity, disability and mortality

The Global Burden of Disease based out of the University of Washington in Seattle has recently assessed the burden of malnutrition in all its forms for the Syndemic commission report in the Lancet. Globally and in the lower income countries, malnutrition in all its forms (shown as the contributions of undernutrition, high. body-mass index, and dietary risks) contributes as much disease burden as high blood pressure, tobacco, high fasting blood glucose and water, sanitation and hygiene combined. For countries with a low Socio-demographic Index, undernutrition incurs a much higher burden both in absolute terms and relative to the other leading contributors. The recognition that undernutrition and obesity are both due to poor diet quality and a low variety of healthy foods is a more helpful perspective to resolve nutrition problems collectively.

Our knowledge of diets is still a black box

Understanding what people are eating is important to shape food system and nutrition policies, including dietary guidelines. However, determining what people are eating, remains somewhat of a black box. We don’t know key questions such as, what are people actually eating? Where do they get their food from and how much do they pay, or are willing to pay for food? What influences their dietary choices? Does health or even the environment factor into their decision making? Data on diets and their sourcing and costs are developing with better use of metrics and surveys that feed into larger databases. We are learning more and more with each passing year. We still have significant gaps in low-income settings on many of these questions.

Diets are inequitable

We are really living in a time of haves and have nots. Globally, there is a significant debate going on about the impacts of animal source foods (mainly large ruminants) on climate change, the environment and on human health. Clearly, this debate sits with high-income countries and those countries which produce and consume vast quantities of meat that do not align with the sustainable development goals. However, we know that the production and consumption practices of some, will impact the many living in low-income countries who do not have the resources to adapt and change rapidly and are limited in their options. The inequities are staggering - the rural, the poor, the geographically isolated struggle to get enough animal source foods that are important, particularly for young children who are growing and developing and need nutrient-rich foods high in iron, zinc, protein, D, B12 etc. The ARENA study advances are understanding of the challenges that rural populations face in getting access to these critical foods – eggs, dairy and fish, rich in important nutrients and other health promoting properties – through both informal and formal markets. While the evidence is growing on the impacts of on-farm production to dietary diversity of households, we know rural peoples, smallholder farming families and day labor workers are net buyers of food and they need market that work.

 My questions

I know the ARENA is meant to of course shed and shine a light but it is also meant to set out a research and policy agenda. Here are some of my questions that I was left wondering about for future research:

  • Infrastructure is so important. Not just roads but technology and innovation along supply chains. What would be the role of the private sector or PPPs to accelerate action and get over the barriers to access?

  • We cannot think about commodities as stand alone. They interact (the ARENA shows how important feed sectors (maize, soybean, fishmeal) are critical for the growth of animal source foods). How do we grapple this with land use changes?

  • The enabling environment is key. What should policies focus on? Subsidies? Trade?

  • Changing food environments or markets. How shall we measure changes and rapid shifts that we are seeing in many rural places, with the encroachment and influence of urban hubs? I would be keen to see how processed, packaged foods are changing the diets and market landscape in rural places.

  • Many consumers all over the world are driven by the same issues - price, convenience, taste. Other factors matter too like reliability and safety. How do we get consumers to care more about nutrition or is that completely unrealistic? What are the trade-offs?

  • Eggs: Can these rural areas shift from scavenging systems to intensive systems? How realistic is that? How much does that cost? Is there infrastructure and investment to do this? There is new evidence showing eggs increase cholesterol and heart disease risk - once again, eggs are deemed to not be god for us. Should we be worried about future burdens if we are promoting these foods to children to improve nutrition?

  • Dairy: Lactose intolerance. The expression of lactase which digests lactose from milk in humans is generally lost after weaning, but selected mutations influencing the promoter of the lactase gene have spread into the human populations. This is considered a classical example of gene-culture co-evolution, and several studies suggested that the lactase gene has been under strong directional evolutionary selective pressure in the past 5000 to 10,000 years. These data indicate that a combination of socio-economic, ethnic and evolutionary factors converged to shape the genetic structure of lactase persistence in East African populations. A Lancet systematic review study in 2017 showed that lactose malabsorption is widespread in most of the world, with wide variation between different regions and an overall frequency of around two-thirds of the world's population. 63% (54–72) in sub-Saharan Africa. Lactose malabsorption was also widespread in Africa. including northern Africa (53–84%) and sub-Saharan Africa (77–100%), with the exception of Niger (13%), Kenya (39%), Sudan (55%), and Tanzania (45%) - pastoralist populations. I am keen to learn more about this?

  • Fish: What would be the strategies to improve the status of fish among consumers as they get wealthier? What role does aquaculture play in these areas and ensuring feed is affordable and more sustainable? What about alternative feeds?

  • Are there gender links to any of these commodities as they become commercialized and how does that change household intake of these foods?

  • How do we ensure these rural places thrive? Someone needs to feed this growing urban population. Who will it be and how if rural places struggle to feed themselves?

 

 

Food Bytes: Weekly Nibbles from Feb 25 - Mar 3

Food Bytes is a weekly blog post of “nibbles” of information on all things food and nutrition science, policy and culture.

Let’s look to the future but learn from the past of the American dietary guidelines. The 2020 USDA dietary guidelines are now in the works. Politico has unpacked who will serve on the Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee, a panel of experts that “wields considerable influence over the guidelines.” Some are tied to the food and beverage industry. Tamar Haspel, one of my favorite journalists who writes on food for the Washington Post re-opened a can of worms about how the dietary guidelines have made Americans fatter, as opposed to promoting healthier diets. The argument goes: When the dietary guidelines decreased their recommendation on fat intake, Americans replaced those fats with added sugars and refined grains. Parallel to this, obesity increased. But Haspel points out that dietary guidelines always advised to limit sugar, and delves into the reasons why - was it calories? was it lower carb diets? She argues the guidelines are not the culprit. Thereafter a twitter war ensued.

Speaking of inducing obesity, taxes on soda have been adopted by many cities and countries now, and the question still remains, do they work? A study done on the soda tax in Berkeley showed a 52% reduction in self reported consumption of soda. Key words: SELF REPORTED, which we all know can bring about some skepticism of quality data. In Philadelphia, there was a 46% decrease in sales of soda, but just right outside the city, there was an increase in sales, insinuating that maybe people are driving outside the city to get cheaper soda. And people don’t want to call it crack…

The issues of unhealthy diets and their contributions to obesity and undernutrition are getting some mainstream press these days. Let food be thy medicine is a mantra that has some teeth. TIME magazine published an article about how health practitioners are starting to include healthy food and diets as part of the medical care they provide to patients. Cure no but maybe a miracle… This infographic from Tufts shows how the medical profession can take action. I also edited a special issue of the AMA Journal of Ethics in which David Katz explores “barriers to dietary counseling, strategies for improving medical education and clinical practice with respect to nutrition, and the ethical importance of sharing dietary information with patients.” He also did a great podcast on the ethical implications of NOT considering diets as part of medical care here.

Dan Glickman and colleagues are arguing that America needs an institute devoted to research on the top cause of poor health - that being nutrition. It would be called the National Institute of Nutrition, and it would be part of the National Institutes of Health. The institute will facilitate and help coordinate incisive research into nutrients, foods and their relationships to better health. They give some details in this NYT article. I could definitely be on board with that. Time for science to take nutrition seriously.

On the opposite end of the malnutrition spectrum, a new report published by the United Nations’ Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) and the World Food Programme (WFP), show that 60% of the world’s hungry live in just 8 countries. They are: Yemen, the DRC, Afghanistan, South Sudan, Syria, the Lake Chad Basin, The Central African Republic, and Somalia. What do these countries have in common? Man-made conflict. Sadly hunger and sometimes starvation is used a tool to fuel civil wars. Very tragic and very preventable.

Another war being fought is to protect and conserve the biodiversity on the planet. An epic, FAO report on biodiversity for food security and agriculture was released last week along with 91 country & 27 organization reports. No time to read 576 pages? The digital short read can be found here. Crux: Biodiversity is under severe threat which means we are too.

The EAT Lancet saga continues, and I speak to eating healthy, sustainable diets for Australia’s ABC radio new show here. We also did an Let’s Rethink Food podcast on the future of food production

Food bytes: Weekly nibbles from Feb 18 - Feb 24

Food Bytes is a weekly blog post of “nibbles” of information on all things food and nutrition science, policy and culture.

Since the publication of the Food in the Anthropocene: the EAT–Lancet Commission on healthy diets from sustainable food systems,” there have been some thoughtful critiques on the paper. Lawrence Haddad of GAIN and some other GAIN colleagues published what they felt were omissions but also the opportunities for more research, dialogue and debate. Over at the New Food Economy, Sam Bloch tried to eat the planetary health diet for one week. He struggled. He cooked almost all his meals, and he found the diet more expensive. I think he was a bit extreme, forgoing coffee and spices, which is not really recommended, but A effort in at least trying to take the lofty goals of the report and giving some practical insights into whether one can consume this diet on a daily basis. But don’t throw the baby out with the bathwater just yet. There are many attempts to ensure plant-based diets and vegan cuisine are tasty to our picky palates. Restaurants and food companies are trying new recipes and using new technology to ensure that vegetables make our mouths water just as much as those pavlov-dog-drooling juicy steaks do.

Another Lancet journal commission report was published last week on the “Global Syndemic of Obesity, Undernutrition, and Climate Change.” What is a syndemic one might ask? It is a synergy of pandemics that co-occur in time and place, interact with each other, and share common underlying societal drivers. Oh. Sounds serious. Well, in this case, it is. The pandemics are climate change and malnutrition - that being undernutrition and obesity. All three affect most people in every country. They give this example:

“Food systems not only drive the obesity and undernutrition pandemics but also generate 25-30% of greenhouse gas emissions (GHGs), and cattle production accounts for over half of those. Car-dominated transportation systems support sedentary lifestyles and generate between 14-25% of GHGs. Underpinning all of these are weak political governance systems, the unchallenged economic pursuit of GDP growth, and the powerful commercial engineering of overconsumption. The outcomes of obesity, undernutrition, and climate change interact. For example, climate change will increase undernutrition through increased food insecurity from extreme weather events, droughts, and shifts in agriculture. Likewise, fetal and infant undernutrition increases the risk of adult obesity. The effects of climate change on obesity and vice versa are currently uncertain.”

The Commissioners argue that double and triple duty actions are necessary to address The Global Syndemic. This figure below shows some options of triple duty actions. Some are very similar to what was recommended in the EAT Lancet Commission like reducing meat consumption and more sustainable dietary guidelines. Seems, most scientists are somewhat on a similar page on these recommendations. They do rip into both governments and food and beverage industries for not governing and not having public health concerns in mind respectively.

Triple duty actions to address the “global syndemic”

Triple duty actions to address the “global syndemic”

Dark cuisine. Copyright: NYT

Dark cuisine. Copyright: NYT

Of course, as part of these global conversations is the issue of meat production and consumption and the potential future technologies that could save the planet, animals and humanity. One report just released argues that lab-grown meat could accelerate climate change, more so than current cattle production. Shwoops. Not sure about the authors assumptions, but they do acknowledge the limitations of their modeling of different types of gases and the energy calculations to come up with such a sweeping conclusion. The podcast Freakonomics breaks down the potential future of meat - weighing the pros and cons. It is worth a listen. One thing they discuss in the podcast that I had not heard of is “finless foods” - where fish are produced from stem cells. With 33% of fish stocks overly fished, this could be a game changer. That is, if people want to eat cultured meats and seafoods….

And speaking of weird science, and the future of food, ever heard of stargazy pie? It is a pie made up of herring, half buried in the pie with their heads and eyes peaking up from the buttery crust. Underneath is the rest of their bodies “leaching their brine in a rich custard, larded with bacon and hard boiled eggs.” Yummmm. Welcome to the world of ugly food and “dark cuisine.” These ugly food concoctions are highlighted in the New York Times Fashion section no less.

Food Bytes: Weekly Nibbles from Jan 21 - 27

Food Bytes is a weekly blog post of “nibbles” of information on all things food and nutrition science, policy and culture.

Environmental effects per serving of food produced

Environmental effects per serving of food produced

The EAT Lancet Commission report entitled: “Food in the Anthropocene: the EAT–Lancet Commission on healthy diets from sustainable food systems” came out this week. It was both praised and demonized but regardless, it made a big splash across many media outlets. I was part of the Commission and I must say, I felt pretty worn out with interviews and podcasts after the first week of its release. So what is the report? It was made up of 37 scientists that came together to do three things: The first was to quantitively describes a universal healthy reference diet that would provide major health benefits, and also increase the likelihood of attainment of the Sustainable Development Goals. The second was to define six scientific boundaries for food systems that would ensure a safe operating space within six Earth systems, towards sustaining a healthy planet. The third outlined five strategies needed for the “Great Food Transformation.” Establishing targets has its benefits but it also breeds controversy. I will write in some detail on the politics of the report at a later date, but for now, the link above has all the deets including a podcast I did with Professor Tim Lang.

On the same week as the EAT Lancet, a paper was quietly published in the New England Journal of Medicine by Andy Haines urging for a renewed focus on climate and health. The authors argue that “climate change is expected to alter…climate-sensitive health outcomes and to affect the functioning of public health and health care systems.” One could argue, we know this, but the fact that it was in a clinical medical journal shows the breadth of how climate change will impact all facets and medical professionals need to be thinking about how this will impact their patient populations, particularly the more vulnerable.

What wasn’t discussed much in the EAT Lancet were “food environments.” These are the places where consumers make a decision about what to buy, order or have delivered. Food environments are markets or cafeterias, or restaurants or food trucks. They look different everywhere. My colleague, Shauna Downs and I published an article in Public Health Nutrition looking at consumers’ perceptions of their food environments and their food consumption patterns and preferences in urban and rural Myanmar. The study shows that the availability of diverse foods had increased over time, while the quality of foods had decreased. Most consumers greatest concern about the foods available was the safety. Consumers preferred fruits, vegetables and red meat compared with highly processed snack foods/beverages. Although consumers reported low intakes of highly processed snack foods, Burmese street food was consumed in high quantities.

One food environment that could improve is the office. A study done by the CDC shows that nearly a quarter of respondents ate food obtained directly at their office. And the foods they ate were not necessarily healthy. Think the leftover pizza, the corporate snack bar, the candy in the jar, the cake for someone’s birthday. The study found that what they officemates ate during work hours was “high in empty calories, sodium, and refined grains, and low in whole grains and fruit.” Shocker? Not really but I do think work places need to stop making it so hard for their colleagues to eat healthy.

Enough with the studies! How about a podcast? A great one has just been started by our friends at NPR. It is called Life Kit and they “help you cut through all the nutrition noise” and provide guidance on how to eat healthy. And there is indeed a lot of noise out there. I listened to three of their podcasts - only about 20 minutes long - and they had some stellar nutrition experts including Dary Mozaffarrian who is the Dean of Tufts Friedman School and Doctors David Katz and David Ludwig. They are great, and I think provide sound advice on nutrition and what to eat. Listen to them on your way to work or even better, while exercising!

And speaking of eating healthy, here is an old video of Andy Warhol, eating a hamburger. Took him about 4 minutes.

Food Bytes: Weekly Nibbles from Jan 8 - 20

Food Bytes is a weekly blog post of “nibbles” of information on all things food and nutrition science, policy and culture.

Sorry to burst some bubbles out there, but it seems soda and junk food taxes may work. Mexico took the lead a few years back and introduced a tax of 1 peso per liter on all beverages that contain added sugar. Turns out, soda purchases are down, particularly in those consumers that consume more soda. They are also substituting for healthier products like water and diet soda. Time for a worldwide scale-up it seems. Viva Mexico! Literally.

But that doesn’t stop soda companies from trying to find new consumers, in new ways and in new places. Where markets wane, there is always another market. A BMJ study shows that Coca Cola has had their eye on China. They have infiltrated this massive market by “cultivating political relationships and strategic localization of products and marketing. Through a complex web of institutional, financial, and personal links, Coke has been able to influence China’s health policies.”  China is now Coke’s third largest market by volume. One word. PERVERSE.

But not all is going wrong on the Asia front. Singapore continues to innovate. When we think of Singapore, we think great food, great shopping and now, great urban farms. Comcrop is a 600-square-metre farm on the roof of one of the malls in Singapore that is growing leafy greens and herbs to sell in nearby bars, restaurants and stores. Is the farm going to feed all of Singapore? No but what a great way to use the urbanscape. Hint hint New York.

Across Europe and in Belgium in particular, there is a controversial ban on the way animals are being slaughtered in accordance with the traditional ways in Muslim halal and Jewish kosher doctrines. According to the Belgium government, the justification for the ban is to ensure certain regulations of animal welfare. The issue has been taken to the courts, but it does make tensions rise, particularly with this populist trend we see marching across Europe, making it difficult for certain populations to be observant to certain traditions.

Just a few other random food tidbits:

This is a cool snapshot of food guidelines around the world. The Qatar one is totally random. Why the scallop shell?

Duke University’s World Food Policy Center has a new food podcast with some leading experts pontificating on all things food. The Andrew Prentice podcast is a goodie.

And the Lexicon just put out a great site on 25 forgotten foods as part of their REDISCOVERED FOOD INITIATIVE. Check out the map below and peruse their website.

 

25 Forgotten Foods

Food Bytes: Weekly Nibbles from Jan 1 - 7

Food Bytes is a weekly blog post of “nibbles” of information on all things food and nutrition science, policy and culture.

As the world slowly wakes up to a new year, there are already some interesting food nibbles published this week.

Great commentary in Lancet Planetary Health on a new, longitudinal study being led by researchers at the Australian National University to understand the relationship between culture and health of the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people, a group of indigenous peoples who have been discriminated against, underserved and disrespected for too long. The study is actually being designed BY and WITH Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people and will gather comprehensive data to explore the links between land, culture, and health amidst the “backdrop of an evolving human civilization and changing state of planetary health.” Looking forward to seeing the results and the transferability of the research to other indigenous peoples.  

In light of the frightening IPCC report on climate change, the Washington Post asked activists, politicians and researchers for 11 climate policy ideas that offer hope. Two involve food. One is about cutting the food we waste in half and is a “win-win-win-win-win for waste mitigation, jobs, economic activity, food security and of course, the climate.” The second is reducing the expansion of CAFOs - concentrated animal feeding operations, and instead, supporting smaller-scale farmers practicing sustainable grazing practices, expanding the infrastructure for grass-fed beef and dairy markets, and enforcing fair market and fair contract rules for the livestock industry.

The Lancet published a very short piece on how digital technologies may revolutionize nutritional sciences. One big gap in the science is that we do not know what people eat, and for everyone who does eat (which is everyone…), we have no way of tracking the health of those foods without going through a very laborious process. Now, with the advancement of technology, we may be able to carry our own personal nutritionist in our pocket, that is, through our smart phones. “By synchronizing various health data types from multiple sources, such as wearable sensors, electronic health records, metabolic profile, gut microbiome, and diet, all analyzable in real-time using machine or deep-learning algorithms, a person’s smartphone has the potential to function as a digital nutritionist.” I am particularly keen to see how the photo-based dietary tracking through automated food image recognition that determines calorie and nutritional content will work.

Gerald Nelson and colleagues published a Nature Sustainability paper and a follow-up op-ed piece in the Washington Post that the global agriculture sector’s narrow focus on feeding the world, in the form of carbohydrate calories (mainly maize, rice and wheat), has led us and will continue to lead us down a dangerous path. In their study, they found that there will be more than enough food per capita to feed 10 billion people by 2050, even with the business as usual climate change pathway. They argue that the focus on carbohydrates has been a contributor to the rising rates of obesity and continued micronutrient deficiencies. They recommend that agriculture shift gears and increase production of major nutrient-rich foods such as fruits, vegetables, nuts, seeds and beans instead of the forty-year focus on staple grains.

Food Bytes: Nibbles from the end of 2018

Food Bytes is a weekly blog post of “nibbles” of information on all things food and nutrition science, policy and culture.

GLOBAL NUTRITION REPORT

The Global Nutrition Report was released this November. The news is not great. The report revealed that the global burden of malnutrition is unacceptably high and now affects every country in the world. But it also highlighted that if we act now, it is not too late to end malnutrition in all its forms. In fact, we have an unprecedented opportunity to do so. Steps have been taken in understanding and addressing malnutrition in all its forms, yet, the uncomfortable question is not so much why are things so bad, but why are things not better when we know so much more than before? Check it out and read all the deets.


CAN OUR DIETS SAVE THE PLANET?

There is much more to discuss than just a “byte” but we published a Nature article showing that what you eat does matter if you want to save the planet. Beef is the big outlier. Those people or in aggregate, countries who eat a lot of red meat (hello the lovely US of A), could dramatically reduce green house gas emissions stemming from agriculture. Refute the science all you want livestock industry, but the science is pretty clear. A lot of press was written up on the paper, and the Guardian does a nice summary.

ROTTEN

Netflix released a food docuseries last year entitled Rotten, and I finally got around to watching all 6 episodes. It is actually quite good, and I think, quite unbiased (as opposed to many food documentaries). It delves into aspects of different food supply chains and presents a slighly terrifying picture. Like how must honey we buy is adulterated and not really honey at all, food allergies that kill, the collapsing/ed cod industry, the underworld of garlic and big corporations out to squeeze the smallholder, and it goes on and on. The show exposes the complex, corrupt nature of our global food system and the many industries feeding that, leaving you questioning where your food comes and who controls it. Good stuff. Hope there is a season 2.

Good enough

As we begin a new year, I have noticed a common theme on twitter and newsfeeds -- How rough 2018 was for so many people, and how much they looked forward to its end. The Washington Post wrote, “…around the globe, 2018 was a year of enduring complex conflicts.”

I would agree that sometimes, it seems the world really is on its knees. With the white house in complete chaos, picking fights with everyone from Mexico to China, the looming Brexit, the DRC, Yemen and Syria in disarray, and the “demise of the liberal order” with right wing populist Bolsonaro winning the Brazilian elections, the political climate is alarming to say the least. The violence we do to each other seems never ending – particularly in the U.S. with gun-related injuries and deaths continually plaguing Americans. Climate change is barreling down on us, with natural disasters ramping up, becoming less predictable and more destructive.

But when we look at the whole picture and try to not react to the sensationalized news feed that inundates us 24/7, things have actually improved for many people around the world. Just look at the statistics of people living in extreme poverty (number of people living on less than $1.90 a day). In the 25 years from 1990 to 2015, the extreme poverty rate dropped an average of a percentage point per year – from nearly 36% to 10%. That is a massive decline! During the same time period, the mortality rate of children under the age of five has fallen by more than half since 1990 – from a rate of 93 (meaning, 93 children die out of every 1,000 live births) to 39.

While the Rohingya situation in Myanmar is devastating, Steven Pinker, Harvard Professor, and author of The Better Angels of our Nature argues that we are doing better than we did 30 years ago and conflicts and genocides taking place around the world have been on a downward trend since the end of the Second World War. And countries recover from conflict. In Rwanda, at the height of their genocide in 1994, the child mortality rate was 282 children per 1000 live births. Now?  38. What a success story.

Rate of deaths in genocides, 1900-2008  (Source: Our World in Data)

Rate of deaths in genocides, 1900-2008 (Source: Our World in Data)

In Martha Nussbaum’s new book, The Monarchy of Fear, she argues the same case. She writes that while the present moment “may look like backsliding from our march toward human equality … it is not the apocalypse” and the world is in a much better place than it was following the Second World War in the 1950s in which women, minorities, and the LGBTQ to name a few, had minimal rights and human injustice was rampant. Nussbaum argues that now is “actually a time when hope and work can accomplish a great deal of good.”

The late and great Hans Rosling also agrees in his book Factfulness: Ten Reasons We're Wrong About the World--and Why Things Are Better Than You Think. He argues that by looking at data over time and in the right way, one can see that the world is making huge strides overall. It is just a matter of looking at the bigger picture and the larger trends over time. Yes, children and mothers die, yes there are displaced peoples, conflicts and famines, and yes, the world is very unfair. But at the same time, largely, humans are progressing in positive ways and the news and media, and probably your twitter feed, often does not reflect that.

Because The Food Archive is all about food, let me get to my point. While progress is happening, there has been less success globally in tackling hunger and malnutrition. Those who are food insecure, or hungry, is still too high and we are seeing an increase in the actual numbers and prevalence of people who are hungry over the last two years. However, when looking at the prevalence over a longer period of time, since 2005 those who are hungry in the world have declined from 14.5% in 2005 to 10.9% in 2017. On the opposite spectrum, in 2000, 8.7% of adults were obese, and now, 13%. That 13% equates to 678 million people in the world who are struggling with obesity, or an unhealthy body mass index.  The trends show increases across the board.

Prevalence of obesity is rising among adult men and women over time (Source: Global Nutrition Report)

Prevalence of obesity is rising among adult men and women over time (Source: Global Nutrition Report)

That said, as reported by the Global Nutrition Report, there are gleams of hope. Stunting, or chronic undernutrition has been declining. In 2000, 33% of children under the age of five were stunted and now, in 2017, 22%. That is almost a 50% decrease. Asia has made significant progress in stunting going from 38% to 23% as has Latin America and the Caribbean declining from 17% to 10% and Africa from 38% to 30%. The question is, why and how? Places like Nepal, Bangladesh and Lesotho have seen significant declines in stunting while still being quite poor. There are many researchers and publications that are trying to understand why these countries have witnessed success, but I think we can argue that it is a combination of interventions from diet, health care, sanitation and hygiene as well as factors not having to do with nutrition at all – like income generation, women’s status, and jobs and remittances.

So what do I hope 2019 looks like? While progress isn't inevitable, and everything doesn’t always get better for everyone all the time, progress is happening in both small and large ways. We need to seek out that progress, learn from what worked, and get into a mindset of problem-solving. We know a lot about what has worked and why, particularly in places where hunger and undernutrition has rapidly come down – look at China, look at Brazil, look at Ethiopia! We also have pockets of success in tackling poor diets, and overweight and obesity. Effective soda taxes in Mexico! Easy-to-read labels on the front of packaged foods high in sugar, fat and salt in Chile! Traditional diets being kept alive in places like Japan and Italy! Obesity rates actually coming down in some states of the U.S. – shocker!

I am well aware of broken resolves, so I refuse to say this year will be better than the last. It is not that I have completely lost faith in humanity and the endeavor it brings, it is just that I think we will need to find the stitched pockets of progress and small glimmers of hope as the basis of our knowledge to move forward. Now, one could argue that seems like a pretty lame new year’s resolution, and instead we need grand-scale, disruptive change. But for me, now, with our current state of affairs, I think that perspective is as good as it gets. And that is good enough.

welcome to our archive.

The Food Archive is a source on all things food and nutrition politics, politicking, and potlicking. We curate what is happening in the world of food and how, why and where food systems and the way we eat are transforming sometimes for the better and sometimes, for the worse. It is meant to be a place to go to for unbiased, evidence-based information along with some cool stuff happening in the food space.

The Food Archive features blog stories, news, podcasts and imagery along with a depository of publications and reports that are shaping our global food system.