Food Bytes: July 8 - July 20

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

Food environments seem to be on the tip of the tongue for everyone these days. Food environments are the “collective physical, economic, policy and sociocultural surroundings, opportunities and conditions that influence people’s food choices and nutritional status.” Or to put it more simply, it is the place where consumers go to buy or order food - a market, a restaurant, a cafeteria.

The UN Standing Committee on Nutrition, also known as UNSCN, has just published a collection of papers on the food environment. It splits up the food environment into two entry points - the food supply shaping these environments and the consumer demand side - and what it would take to make change, also known as the enabling environment. The publication is chock-full of case studies from all over the world. I like the ones on Mexico, the private sector last mile, the flathead reservation, cash transfers, and the digital influence.

Food Environment Framework showing supply and demand. Source: Marshall et al 2019 UNSCN report

In South Africa’s Soweto hood, women struggle to be healthy. Food environments are pretty dismal (fries, fries and more fries), and exercising outside can be dangerous. It is not just about supply and demand of healthy foods, which the UNSCN publication focused on, but the whole built environment, the way women are treated in our society and urban safety. At the same time, its seems many South Africans are taking food security into their own hands. One study found that 2.2 million households have recently constructed food gardens at their homes in order to avert food insecurity.

While we are on the lovely UN, the UN Committee on Food Security is rolling out a series of regional consultations on what is known as the Voluntary Guidelines on Food Systems and Nutrition. This stems from the High Level Panel of Experts on Nutrition and Food Systems report which called for these guidelines to be developed by governments collectively and collaboratively. These voluntary guidelines are meant to create a global norm of reference in the governance of food systems and nutrition/diets. The guidelines outline principles and practices that governments can refer to when making laws and administering food systems. These guidelines should be seen as an internationally negotiated soft law or a set of guidelines in which all governments have reached a common ground. So, they can be important, and quite powerful. Anyone can comment on the zero draft - far from its final - here. The regional consultations started in Africa, Ethiopia. Then, Asia, Bangkok. Then Central and South America, Panama, North Africa, Egypt, Europe, Budapest and last but not least, North America. I had the pleasure of being at the Ethiopia meeting and it was quite fantastic to have so many African countries in one room talking about African food systems. Amazing stuff.

Source and Copyright: Johnny Miller, NYT 2019

Speaking of Africa, the diversity of cuisines and culture is what makes the continent so amazing. Take Nigeria. Reading Yewande Komolafe’s recipes made me want to jump on a plane to Lagos and eat my way through it.

But it is not always a rosy picture for Africa. The continent is still struggling with food insecurity, while at the same time, obesity is creeping up, up and up. The FAO State of Food Insecurity (SOFI) 2019 report just came out, two months early. It was reasoned that it came out to line up with the High Level Political Forum. Yeah sure. I think it was timed to be released right before the Director General, José Graziano da Silva stepped down to celebrate his 8 years as the leader of FAO. However, the report is nothing to celebrate. I digress…The major findings of the SOFI were the following:

  • More than a quarter of the world’s population now struggles to eat safe, nutritious and sufficient food.

  • Hunger is on the rise in most of Africa, in parts of the Middle East and in Latin America and the Caribbean. The situation is most alarming in Africa, where since 2015 undernourishment has steadily increased in almost all subregions. In Asia, undernourishment has been decreasing in most regions, reaching 11.4 percent in 2017. In Latin America and the Caribbean, rates of undernourishment have increased in recent years, largely as a consequence of the situation in South America.

  • Economic shocks are contributing to prolonging and worsening the severity of food crises caused primarily by conflict and climate shocks.

  • No region is exempt from the rising trends of overweight and “obesity rates are higher in those countries where moderate food insecurity is also higher.”

We see this in the United States too. I just wrote a piece for Bloomberg Opinion (I didn’t choose the photo.) showing that food insecure adults in the U.S. are 32% more likely than others to be obese — especially if they are women. Poverty and unemployment have driven the dual rise in food insecurity and obesity since the 1960s, especially in rural America. But many city dwellers subsisting with inadequate social services and support structures are also susceptible. Every time I write a piece in Bloomberg Opinion, I always get lots of interesting email comments. For this piece, most commenters feel that if you are fat, it is your fault. If healthy foods are available, affordable and easy to access, “these people” will always make the wrong choice. My reaction? WOW. It is so hard to eat healthy in our perverse food environments. Blaming and shaming is not going to make things better. But it seems, consumers are catching on in the U.S. - diet quality is improving.

But what does the latest evidence suggest for those who are overweight and want to lose weight? I will soon dedicate a longer blog to this issue because the literature is confusing. Is it a keto diet? Is it intermittent fasting? Is it low-carb? Is it putting a teaspoon of oil in your coffee every morning? New evidence suggests that cutting 300 calories per day, from any food, can lead to substantial weight loss in adults (7.5 kilos over two years) compared to the control group. Tamar Haspel of the Washington Post, argues that eating ultra-processed foods comes down to increased calorie consumption. We consume more of those foods, and they are calorically dense. She wrote:

“In a nutshell: The root of obesity is palatability and calorie density, combined with ubiquity and convenience. Satiety hormones and other metabolic machinations have much less to do with it. We’re responding to cues from without, not from within. One new study doesn’t prove it, of course, but it’s the hypothesis that best fits the preponderance of the evidence.”

I really appreciate this article that “Being Fat is Not a Moral Failure.” Damn straight. This Scientific American article argues “Individual behavior change is ineffective in the face of social and structural barriers that constrain individual choice. These barriers are uniquely relevant among racial and ethnic minorities and impoverished adults who are more likely to be obese.”

A bunch of scientific papers and media articles came out this week on diets, nutrition, and food systems. Here are some highlights.

Kathmandu food stall - healthy and unhealthy foods. Source and Copyright: Jess Fanzo

  • “Ultra-processed” foods or what I call, junk food, are in the news again. This article outlines four dangers with food reformulation - redesigning an existing processed food product with the objective of making it healthier. This article argues that reformulation just tinkers around the edges, and isn’t really fixing the root problems of the food system, and what the authors say is food and beverage industries.

  • Case in point? Nearly 10,000 cases of heart disease and stroke and 1,500 cases of cancer could have been avoided in England if the government had not switched to a voluntary deal (as opposed to mandatory) with the food industry to cut salt in food. England is doing so much good stuff in the food space right now, but man, there are potential setbacks with Brexit and political shifts. This BMJ post by Annie Purdie and colleagues is concerned about Boris Johnson’s recent decision to look at “sin taxes” and creating a nanny state. The authors argue that the public health community needs to “move beyond debating the cost-effectiveness of interventions, and engage with the underlying political nature of the issue.” We need to pay more attention to the language (sin, nanny, liberties etc) used to highlight the problem and the proposed solutions like taxes on soda and regulating the levels of salt and sugar in foods. As Bob Marley sang, “don’t let ‘em fool ya.”

  • There is more and more coming out that nutritional sciences is “broken.” In this article, they use the “eggs are again bad for you” study that came out in JAMA. Waah. Is it? I disagree! Of course, when we focus on specific foods and nutrients, the data is not clear, but dietary patterns show basically the same thing. Give it a rest dudes.

  • While these researchers argue that more evidence is needed, they did find that snack foods and sugar‐sweetened beverages are providing a substantial proportion of energy intakes (ranges from 13 to 38%!) among children below 2 years of age in Latin American and South‐east Asian low and middle income countries.

  • A study in the capitol of Nepal, Kathmandu, showed just that consumption of unhealthy snack foods and beverages contributed 47% of total energy intake among the wealthiest consumers, compared with 5% among the poorest. This pattern of junk food consumption among young children was associated with inadequate micronutrient intakes. The reason that mom’s give these foods to their children? Convenience - they are easy to prepare and easy to feed. Makes sense. Looks like even among very poor countries, we are seeing the nutrition transition play out in real time. Ever try making dal bhat from scratch? Not easy and incredibly time consuming…

  • I love that the Lancet is calling on oral health researchers to review the evidence and conflicts of interest of the impacts of what we eat on our dental health and the caries that come with sugar consumption. The lead scientist argues, and this goes back to the infant studies: “A particular concern is the high levels of sugar in processed commercial baby foods and drinks which encourage babies and toddlers to develop a preference for sweetness in early life. We need tighter regulation and legislation to restrict the marketing and promotion of sugary foods and drinks if we are to tackle the root causes of oral conditions.”

  • New microbiome research shows that a specialized food made up of chickpeas, soy, peanuts, bananas and a blend of oils and micronutrients substantially boost microbiome health in severely malnourished children. Yummy.

  • Do cookbooks need nutrition labels? Great question but sort of takes the fun out of cookbooks no?

Some things have improved for food security and nutrition. Source: Byerlee and Fanzo, 2019 GFS Journal

Derek Byerlee and I wrote a piece looking back 75 years on commitment to hunger when the first international commitment to ending hunger was made at the UN Conference on Food and Agriculture, at Hot Springs, Virginia, USA in 1943. That conference set the goal of ‘freedom from want of food, suitable and adequate for the health and strength of all peoples’ that should be achieved ‘in all lands within the shortest possible time’ (US Department of State, 1943). It is sobering and shameful that 75 years after this clarion call, as well as the dozens of similar global declarations since 1943 for ending hunger, some 800 million persons are estimated to be undernourished and over 2 billion adults and children suffer from other forms of malnutrition be it obesity or micronutrient deficiencies. We remind readers of the significance of the Hot Springs conference and briefly trace the long road that has led us back to the original vision of ending hunger that recognized the several dimensions of nutrition, from undernourishment to micronutrient deficiencies. While there has been progress, this reflection over 75 years helps appreciate the fact that today for the first time, the links of agriculture, health and nutrition outlined in 1943 are again at center stage in the global hunger challenge as embraced in SDG2. Accordingly, SDG2 offers a better foundation for accelerating progress in reducing malnutrition in its several dimensions, although we recognize major gaps in knowledge, financing, and implementation capacity for realizing SDG2 targets.

Someone else is realizing the importance of agriculture. It seems Bill Gates has woken up to the fact that the CGIAR exists. His article is titled “You’ve probably never heard of CGIAR, but they are essential to feeding our future.” Hate to spoil it Billie Boy, but we have heard of the CGIAR…and I don’t confuse it with the word “cigar,” cigarillos, ciggies, or ziggie stardust.

Country ratios of fruit and vegetable availability to WHO age-specific recommendations. Source: Mason-D’Croz et al 2019

Country ratios of fruit and vegetable availability to WHO age-specific recommendations. Source: Mason-D’Croz et al 2019

On the environmental and climate change front, lots going on. The World Resources Institute released a mother of a report - 564 pages - on Creating A Sustainable Food Future. You may have seen the abbreviated version released 6 months ago. But this one goes into great detail a 22-item “menu” which is divided into five “courses” that together could close the food, land and greenhouse gas gaps: (1) reduce growth in demand for food and agricultural products; (2) increase food production without expanding agricultural land; (3) protect and restore natural ecosystems; (4) increase fish supply (through improved wild fisheries management and aquaculture); and (5) reduce GHG emissions from agricultural production. Richard Waite and Janet Ranganathan are seriously my heroes in creating these action oriented solutions. Well done.

Following on the heals of that report, two Lancet Planetary Health papers came out. One paper shows that even under optimistic socioeconomic scenarios future supply of fruits and vegetables, central components of a healthy diet, will be insufficient to achieve recommended levels in many countries. Consequently, systematic public policy targeting the constraints to producing and consuming fruits and vegetables will be needed. The second paper shows climate change and increased atmospheric CO2 will impact the availability of protein, zinc and iron availability. The many countries that currently have high levels of nutrient deficiency would continue to be disproportionately affected.

This expose by the Guardian shows that Brazil’s huge beef sector, and the appetite for beef, continues to threaten health of world’s largest rainforest, the Amazon. This is just downright sad.

And while those of us in nutrition don’t really get to the larger social determinants of food insecurity and malnutrition, it is important to do so. This article in NPR’s Goats and Soda delve into the practice of trading sex for fish in Lake Chilwa in Malawi. This is driven by poverty and food insecurity and the impacts are catastrophic in this southern African country - HIV, violence and stigma - for these women.


Food Bytes: June 3 - June 30

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

The month of June was filled with lots of food-related action - meetings, conferences, prizes and elections. Let me tell ya, it was hard to keep up. The question is, what is the result of all these meetings and the environmental footprint of moving all these bodies from meeting to meeting? Does it actually shift the agenda in positive directions? Are we all just talking to our friends? Is it just a way to keep us busy posting photos and videos on twitter? I wonder sometimes. I am not criticizing. I am a part of the problem. But I do think it is time to rethink what all this effort is amounting to, and for who.

The UN Food and Agriculture Organization, also known as FAO, hosted a Future of Food Symposium with some dynamo speakers, but not a lot of action coming out of it. FAO also just announced the election of their new Director General. His name is Qu Dongyu from China. He is currently the Vice Minister of Agriculture and Rural Affairs of China. Makes sense. China is a giant and is greatly shaping the world’s food system. Looking forward to seeing his vision. He has a lot of work to do…

The American Society of Nutrition @nutritionorg hosted their annual nutrition conference, right upon Johns Hopkins doorstep in Baltimore. Lots of diverse science being presented and also lots of controversy around sponsporship of events and significant presence by industry. I was only there for a day but that was about all I could take sitting in an over air-conditioned window-less conference center looking at powerpoint after powerpoint. That said, it is a great way to get caught up on the latest science. And Marie Ruel, a stellar international nutrition scientist at IFPRI, was awarded the Kellogg Prize for Lifetime Achievements in International Nutrition. Well deserved. Her talk is here. I highly recommend reading Marie’s incredible body of work. Much of it can be found here. You will see why she got the award - she accomplished so much over the last 30+ years. And she still has more to do!

The @EATforum Stockholm Food Forum, also an annual affair, took place. Glitz? Check. Grand? Check. Aspirational? Check. But what’s next? The impact of EAT is yet to be seen and it remains unclear on where they will go from here. Do they do advocacy? Policy? Science? I did the opener with Johan Rockstrom or also known as Johan Rockstar. It was fun. The video is below. One thing is clear to me, if they are advocating for a better food future for all, they need to take the show on the road.

Speaking of EAT, the EAT Lancet Commission fall-out keeps churning. Some of the authors of the Commission provide some explanation of issues raised by other scientists on the environmental targets here in a Lancet short response/commentary. Another study put the EAT-Lancet reference diet to the test among a large prospective cohort of British adults. The researchers found that the diet has beneficial associations for ischaemic heart disease and diabetes, but no association with stroke and no clear association with mortality. The media continues to churn out pieces on sustainable diets and mentioned the EAT Lancet report. Great that the work is garnering so much attention in the popular press but what now? Some highlights in the last few weeks:

  • This Vox piece closely examines what our diets will look like in a hotter, drier climate. Lots of talk (literally - it is an interview style piece) on the future of food and technology.

  • The Eater highlights the rise of the plant-based burgers in particular, the Impossible Burger, and how fast it went viral. Seems everything David Chang touches turns to gold.

  • Stepanie Feldstein also wrote for Yes Magazine about the plant-based burgers and argues that while it won’t save the course we are on with climate, small individual actions do matter, and manifest in different ways.

  • This Devex article asks about the relevancy of the EAT Lancet report to the global south. Good question. One expert from Liberia indicated that many in her country don’t even know about the report. That is not a surprise. That said, in the talks I have given on the report, I have emphasized what it does and does not mean for Africa and Asia (as well as what the report did and did not do), as a researcher who squarely works in both continents. Still a lot of work to do to ensure the global findings of the report translate in appropriate ways that ensure livelihoods and culture are considered right along with health and environmental challenges for particular, diverse country contexts.

  • I had to laugh at the title of this Guardian article. “Most 'meat' in 2040 will not come from dead animals, says report.” Why does that sound scary when taken at face value?

Okay enough on that! The @WorldFoodPrize 2019 winner was announced this month. The prize will go to Simon Groot, a Dutch vegetable “seedsman” where he started the East-West Seed Company reaching over 20 million smallholder farmers. More about his life can be found here. Not sure how the World Food Prize calculates the reach. I recall last year they credited shared prize winners Haddad and Nabarro, with “reducing the world’s number of stunted children by 10 million between 2012 and 2017.” While these two giants definitely made contributions, how did they get to that number?

Two publications on India just came out that I highly recommend. The first is a book, published by the great Prabhu Pingali and colleagues on Transforming Food Systems for a Rising India. It is a part of a book series by Chris Barrett at Cornell, on Agricultural Economics and Food Policy. I will publish a book on food systems for nutrition in mid 2020. At the same time, the Global Food Security Journal just published an article on future diets in India. They show that by 2050, there will be projected increases in per capita consumption of vegetables, fruit and dairy products, and little projected change in cereal (rice and wheat) and pulse consumption. Meat consumption is projected to remain low. The question remains, what will that mean for their production and food supplies and their nutrition outcomes?

Future direct consumption trends in India by Alea-Carew et al 2019 GFS Journal

Much being written about the food system front these days. To start, Nicholas Kristof, Opinion Columnist for the New York Times, in all of his eloquence highlighted the obscene inequities of our food system. He wrote:

“If some distant planet sends foreign correspondents to Earth, they will be baffled that we allow almost one child in four to be stunted, even as we indulge in gold leaf cupcakes, $1,000 sundaes and half-million-dollar bottles of wine.”

Guido Schmidt Traub and colleagues from the Food and Land Use Coalition argue that there are three ways to fix the food system in Nature. I agree with their three pillared approach (see figure below) but how? and with what investment? More details please! And if you don’t even know what I am talking about when I say “food system”, Corinna Hawkes and colleagues lay it all out in a policy brief. She also has another brief on why food systems matter for policies. I really like these - and there are more to come. Marion Nestle also lays out what it would take to change the United States food system. Marion is so practical. I would love to see her do more global work. Maybe we all need a dose of her realism.

What it would take to change the food system. Schmidt-Traub et al 2019 nature

The SDSN Network hosted an online conference on nutrition-sensitive agriculture from 3-5 June, 2019. Nutrition-sensitive agriculture offers great potential for achieving SDG 2, as it connects agricultural development to improved nutrition outcomes. Many nutrition-sensitive agriculture interventions have been applied in recent years. This e-conference aimed to turn the evidence coming from these interventions into concrete recommendations for practitioners. Close to 1,000 people from all over the world registered for this e-conference, taking part in three live sessions and interacting via an online conference platform. We had great speakers — Matin Qiam, Harold Alderman, and Agnes Quisumbing — who highlighted the latest research. Missed it? All the powerpoints and videos can be found here.

Speaking of SDSN, they are also responsible for the SDG Index. The 2019 report just came out. Do indices really do much? Do they spur action?Guess who ranked number one in the world in moving towards achievement of the Sustainable Development Goals? Denmark followed by Sweden. What a shocker! Last? Central Africa Republic. Second worst? Chad. Triste…Looking at the OECD countries, the USA is awful. Yo Trump, I thought you were going to make America great again. Yah, right.

OECD Progress on the SDGs (2019)

But it ain’t just America my friends, Italy is struggling on many fronts. Just coming back from Rome, I am reminded about the scale of the rubbish there. And now it seems the trash problem is becoming a public health hazard. Such a beautiful dazzling city ruined by poor management. Oh, and tourism. Mamma mia.

Speaking of indices, Bioversity just released their Agrobiodiversity Index Report which assesses dimensions of agrobiodiversity in ten countries to measure food system sustainability and resilience. Strangely, only 10 countries are shown. Not sure why there are not more. Would be interesting to know if this will be more widespread. And if you think dedicating a day to biodiversity is important, think again. @AgroBioDiverse lays out why he dislikes the International Day for Biological Diversity. I actually completely agree with him. I have very similar sentiments with the Decade of Nutrition…

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.