The FDA Fails… Again

If I unknowingly consumed those extra calories every day, in a week I would put on an extra pound of body weight.

Once again, I find myself reading an article about the shortcomings of the FDA and its ability to do what it says it will. Apparently, the somewhat controversial New York mandate for most chain restaurants to post calorie count is regulated by nothing more than the honor code. Basically, restaurants can post any number they like until someone decides it sounds wrong and has them audited (not very likely).

Again… why do we have the FDA? It’s seeming more and more that the Agency’s job is to come up with regulations and rules that it has no intention (or means) of enforcing. Neistat, the writer of the NYTimes article, spoke to the representatives of five chains that listed calorie values less or much less than their actual count. Responses from the chains varied, each having one excuse or another.

If this is a problem in New York, a state with some of the strictest nutritional regulations, then I can only imagine how bad the mislabeling is in other areas of the country. According to the article, the older method of calorie counting is far less accurate than the way we currently do it in a lab. Yet many companies base their values on the old system and old “set” counts for many ingredients. And no one seems to notice!

Especially not the FDA.

Live Unconsciously.

Panera Bread has a new commercial about their approach to “the right way” of preparing food through the use of foody buzzwords like “trust,” “community,” “farmers,” “humble,” and my favorite quote from the title, “live consciously”. By using these words, Panera attempts to conjure up an image of the company as one with a set of morals that prioritizes natural, local, and sustainable food systems. Its target audience is certainly health- and food-conscious consumers (again, see the title of the video), and yet that is the exact audience I think this ad alienates. Panera’s entire goal in this commercial is to convince consumers that by eating Panera products, they are living up to some set of unspecified ethical eating standards, yet the company provide almost no information on how eating freshly baked breads makes someone more moral.

Panera’s idea of providing “food you can trust” is extraordinarily vague: the entire text of the commercial is only 116 words long, spoken over a distracting Rube Goldberg-esque contraption that involves wooden chickens and a plastic tomato garden with a watering can. The commercial does not mention tomatos. The only examples given of the company’s “right way” of preparing food are 1) baking fresh bread from fresh dough, which the commercial notes has been done since Panera first opened, and 2) using antibiotic-free chicken in recipes.

We are supposed to believe that by buying Panera products we are living more “consciously.” Yet what does Panera what us to be conscious of? Obviously not where Panera’s vegetables and fruit come from, or how their soups are made. There is no mention of how far these antibiotic-free chickens and the ingredients for this fresh dough have to travel to get to each Panera location. Does “food you can trust” only encompass trusting that the bread is fresh? What about trusting where it comes from? Is Panera more trustworthy than local cafés and restaurants because it can afford artsy commercials? Brand recognizability is not synonymous with trustworthiness.

That decision made us wonder: what else could we do the right way? So we talked to our farmers and our chefs.

This quote invokes the image of Panera cooperating closely with its suppliers and its employees, humbly working together in harmony to create the ultimate moral and virtuous menu for hardworking Americans. The funny thing is, Panera was actually sued for failing to comply with the California Labor Code in 2009 and 2011. While they did not admit to any wrongdoing, the company still put aside $5 million to settle claims that it failed to allow food and rest breaks as well as termination payment for some of its workers. The company was also sued for racism in the workplace in 2011 with the claim that one store was placing attractive white women at the registers and keeping African American workers in the back room only.

So, Panera, what exactly should we be conscious about? Perhaps the way that the commercial attempts to trick consumers into thinking the company said more than it actually did. Decidedly vague references to morality and consciousness make it seem like Panera is in tune with the “foodie” crowd, and yet provide little to no evidence of supporting local farmers or operating with a food-centered business plan. Should we tune out the ethical implications of poor labor conditions to eat fresh bread? I do not want to ignore the good Panera has done with its Panera Cares outreach or its innovative “Pay What You Want” system that has helped feed thousands, but the idea that we are somehow living at a greater moral standard by eating Panera is ridiculous.

Mislabeling Food: Does it Matter?

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I began this blog with a question: how does the FDA regulate food in America? The more I look into it, the more it appears the answer is “very poorly”. A recent study has found that roughly a third of the fish in the United States is mislabeled in restaurants, fish markets, grocery stores, and sushi bars. Now, as a rule I do not eat fish, so my initial reaction was a bit apathetic; it didn’t really affect me at all. Still, though, I was a bit turned off by the thought of one fish being replaced by an even less appetizing fish. I knew this would cause a lot of backlash in the fishing industry and the venues that were mislabeling them.

Obviously, the fact that a third of the fish sold in American is mislabeled is a bit frightening; that is not a small fraction by any means. It begs the question of how that large a percentage went unnoticed by the FDA for so long (that is, until an external organization discovered it). Of course, it is impossible for the FDA to test every single food item in the U.S.; that’s both unreasonable and inefficient. But there has to be a more effective way of making sure Americans are eating what they think they are eating. What else could be mislabeled? Is the FDA doing anything to attempt to figure that out?

But all this discussion of regulation got me thinking about why we care so much in the first place. Why do we think eating one type of grouper is fine, but eating another is bad for us? True, some species of fish (and meat, for that matter) are not good for us by any means. The study cites allergens and “potential safety hazards” as the reason for public concern. Yet while I understand the concern for allergens, I cannot get over the idea that what we deem “acceptable” for fish is based on culture: we would prefer to pay more for Pacific cod than Atlantic cod. Likewise for grouper over Gulf grouper. The study lists no differences in health or nutrition for these replacements, just availability/appropriate price. Yes, it is important to know what is going into our bodies, but if a scientific study had to tell us, and not our upset stomachs or allergic reactions, how bad could it have really been?

The FDA’s initial response was weak: it wants to get rid of vernacular terms for fish to prevent fraud such as this. It did not apologize for any health problems this may have caused, which furthers the point: why should Americans care that they’re getting cod from a different ocean than they thought? We are so ingrained with the idea of what is “good” to eat and what is a delicacy that eating a similar species under the wrong name is an outrage. It’s similar to the fact that we scoff at the idea of eating, say, seagull, a delicacy in Newfoundland, Canada, while Indians think it’s disgusting that we eat cow. But it isn’t a difference between cultures in this case; it’s just a learned sense of what we “should” eat.

The article ends by advising consumers to buy fish in the least processed (and thus most recognizable) form possible to avoid fraud. Obviously this requires consumers actually being able to identify different species of fish, which I believe is great advice because it requires us to be more in tune with what we are eating. But it also puts the onus of regulating one’s food intake on the consumer, and not on the FDA or other government agencies like Customs & Border Protection. Indeed: what we “should” eat should not be determined by a government agency–especially one that is not doing its job–but rather by ourselves by better knowing our food.

Fad Diets

While browsing a food blog the other day I came across this list of 200 calories worth of many different foods. Most came as no surprise (obviously celery has very few calories, and I knew jelly beans were not good for me) but some caught me off guard: only 34 grams of peanut butter? Only 33 grams of nuts? And then seeing 50 grams of Splenda sweetener. Maybe I am naive, but I feel so misguided by the message certain food companies seem to send. Splenda touts itself as so much better for you than real sugar, but it really isn’t that many grams (50) of Splenda that equals 200 calories. It takes fewer grams of Splenda to reach 200 calories than gummy bears.

Why does our society have this defined idea of what is “good” for you? How do we determine it? To me it seems like even if contrasting information comes out, like how certain macro/micronutrients matter more than caloric intake in terms of obesity or that what kind of calories you eat doesn’t matter at all, we just believe what we think is easiest to believe. We have this societal notion of what we are supposed to eat that seems to be really hard to change.

Check out this article on the history of dieting in America: trendy diets virtually always come into popularity with pop culture. We see a famous person “succeed” with a certain eating pattern and copy that, such as the cigarette-instead-of-snack diet that became popular in the 1920s via Lucky Strike. In retrospect, this does not seem like sound medical advice. Obviously that fad has been proven to have negative effects (to say the least), but our society is still continuing the pattern of listening to ads and celebrities instead of scientists. Even today, we see Jessica Simpson, Oprah Winfrey, Jennifer Hudson, and others influencing people (mostly women, but men too) in their eating habits. But the emphasis is rarely on health: it’s on losing weight.

It seems like the obsession our mainstream society has with food is less about what we believe is good for us and more about how we think we should relate to food based on what the media tells us. This becomes more evident when we look at other cultures: in the Netherlands it’s perfectly normal to put mayonaise on nearly everything; in France they emphasize huge meals with many fats and meats; and in Russia they endorse starch-y, carb-y foods that are often served with butter. Our idea of good eating is heavily influenced by our culture.

But back to my point: why do we simultaneously tout low-calorie diets and not always know how many calories are in many of our favorite foods? Why do we insist on less fat, more protein, less calories, more working out if we do not even know where these theories come from? Because food directly relates to our culture and how we see our relationship with food is not based on biology. I’m very interested to read about Terroir and the idea that food has a certain meaning in different cultures later in the year, because it seems to have a larger effect than I had originally thought.

You Are What You Eat

While reading some articles on food and nutrition this week, I stumbled across the website of the Nutrition Science Initiative, a nonprofit devoted to reestablishing the scientific method into nutrition research. Its goal is to help develop better-designed studies that rely on the same scientific rigor as pharmaceutical studies. While I’ve always known that scientists are not exactly all-knowing when it comes to what makes us obese, I had never considered that they might not be doing everything they could to remedy that fact, either. NuSI’s website says that the overwhelming majority of nutritional studies use participants that rely on the “honor code” of sticking to the diet being studied. That means being away from the watching eye of scientists in the comfort of their own homes. Who is to say that many of these participants don’t cheat on these diets and then lie to save face?

“In short, the state of the scholarly literature is such that we need well-designed, well-controlled, large n, lengthy studies directly addressing the question of whether the carbohydrate content of the diet influences fat mass independent of total caloric intake and whether total caloric intake has an influence independent of carbohydrate content. Such studies would also ultimately address the effect of nutrient composition on biomarkers of disease and other relevant outcomes.”

You would think that with the enormous obsession Americans have on obesity, we would be putting more effort (and funding) into these studies being more scientific. Current studies definitely approach nutrition from a holistic standpoint; since many vitamins and nutrients affect multiple bodily functions it can be hard to isolate distinct factors that lead to malnutrition and/or obesity. But even if scientists maintain that they cannot be any more “scientific,” how can anyone be okay with how little research we are actually conducting?

Numbers

The above photo shows the spending of the USDA, American Cancer Society, American Heart  Association, and the National Institutes of Health on obesity and nutrition research. Yes, school lunches, behavioral & hypertensions research, and HIV treatment are all extremely important and should not lose funding. But it would be difficult to find someone who disagrees with the fact that proper nutrition can help prevent and/or mitigate the symtoms of many diseases. Personally, I think funding more nutritional research would not only be beneficial in understanding what goes into our bodies more, but also that it could open doors in terms of drug research.

On a related note: scientists have discovered that a drug commonly used to treat canker sores might be the key to weight loss but have yet to test it on humans. While great, weight loss is quite different than nutrition. Whether or not we are thin is not an indicator of health. Moreover, the article notes that if this drug did work on humans, it would have to be used every day to maintain low body weight. This is, of course, problematic, given how much American already depend on pharmaceuticals. Hopefully, new research like that supported by NuSI will reveal a healthier way to reach our goal weights that does not involve pills.

Welcome to my Blog!

My name is Hilary and this is my blog for New Food Activism, a class I’m taking this semester! I’m excited to learn about the development of the agricultural industry as it is today and the various legislation that exists to regulate food, growing, and nutritional information. My interests include food regulations and the FDA. I wonder what goes into making the labels for food and what is required for a company to label its food as “organic” or “fair trade” or how accurate nutrient information really is; what are the loopholes, if any, involved in food labeling?

 

Nutritional-Information

I am fascinated by the manner in which certain trendy diets seem to valorize and/or demonize certain macronutrients. For example, the ketogenic diet, similar to the Atkins diet, asserts that carbohydrates should be limited to net less than 20 per day. It requires virtually all energy be derived from fat and protein. Many other diets advertise minimizing fat intake and maximizing “natural” foods like fruit and vegetables. Every new diet seems to advertise a new breakthrough in understanding how our bodies burn energy and maintain a low BMI and each of these relies on the nutritional information on food packaging we all take for granted. Yet what do these breakthrough mean if we do not understand how the macronutrients are measured for food packaging in the first place?

I hope in this blog to be able to understand a bit more about food regulations and nutritional disclosure. What role does the FDA and other governmental bodies have in ensuring proper advertisement? How can certain companies get around this? Whether or not the “perfect” ratio of macronutrients is ever determined, this all means nothing if consumers do not understand how they are measured.