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.


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):

can-of-coke-and-body.png
  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; A 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); 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 the poltics of soda aptly entitled “Soda Politics” highlighting the perverse tactics used by soda industries to fund and push their products 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…

Biggie in da Bronx

Biggie in da Bronx

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 (for a relaxing time, make it Santori 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. 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 and Instagram 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).

One could argue that there are efforts underway to counter these ads - companies are reformulating sodas to get the sugar content down or using alternative sweeteners, and national and municipal governments are taxing soda at the point of sale. Is this enough? I will write on these topics in some detail at a later date.

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.