President, Strategic Communications, LLC

Sunday, June 24, 2012

Could Popkin, Ludwig & Brownell be Right?

Let's put all the cards on the table. I have worked for the food industry in science communications for about 25 years and I am beginning to wonder whether the main bete noirs of the industry, Popkin (UNC-Chapel Hill), Ludwig (Harvard) and Brownell (Yale), might be right about what the nation needs to do about obesity, diabetes and heart disease.

It is a sobering thought.
I was struck with this heretical thought when I was sitting in the lobby of the beautiful Durham Performing Arts Center waiting to see the national touring company's performance of Wicked. What grabbed my attention was the vast number of morbidly obese people who were there to see the show too. All I saw were people with diabetes and high risk factors for heart disease. According to the CDC, North Carolina has an adult obesity rate of about 29%, and I wondered how could they all be in Durham at the same place, at the same time, waiting to see the same show?

Then, about 10 days later, I was in the west North Carolina mountains where legendary golfer Bobby Jones built golf courses and mansions to escape Atlanta's blistering heat, and a family friend introduced me to a chef that had just opened a "good old southern home cooking" restaurant. The portions were enormous. USDA's MyPlate program was nowhere to be found. The only plate I saw was overflowing with fried food and canned green beans and corn.

How do you reconcile 30 years of dietetic advising, counseling, lecturing and cajoling consumers that there are no good foods or bad foods, just good diets and bad diets when the nation's obesity, diabetes and heart disease rates soar?

A bit of history - In 1990 when Congress passed the Nutrition Labeling and Education Act, those of us at the negotiating table, knew there would be a nutrition facts box and we also knew there would be no education. USDA and HHS tried a food pyramid but after 10 years it had become a prime example of federal program failure. Industry did not want it, and the Chairman of the Senate Committee, the late U.S. Sen. Ted Kennedy (D-MA) and the Ranking GOP Senator, Orrin Hatch (Utah) were not interested. Now USDA wants to market MyPlate, a plate that tells consumers it should be half filled with fruits and vegetables. There is no evidence or best practice that MyPlate will do any better than the disgraced Pyramid.

Think of the obesity challenge this way - every aisle of the supermarket has a lobby in D.C. The job of the lobby is to try to get the feds to promote their "good" foods or nutrients and leave all the others alone, although competing food groups do battle with each other through a maze of law firms and trade associations.

Several months ago, USDA's politically correct Food Nutrition Service and the "lefties" at the School Nutrition Association, proposed schools should be, in effect, be prevented to serve oven baked french fried potatoes, because they were starchy. No matter that according to the CDC, all white potatoes served in schools represent less than one percent of daily caloric intake for all school-aged children. No matter that white potatoes are cheap and packed with critically important potassium and dietary fiber, something that the Institute of Medicine has been saying for years to deaf policy-makers. The PCers also forgot that russet potatoes are grown in large abundance in more than 20 states, that's about 40 automatic "no" votes in the Senate. Eventually, after all the speeches were given, the ill-informed USDA language was deleted on the floor of the Senate and the issue died, for now.

Activists policy makers present a compelling argument, using current data, that the old mantra of "all foods fit" has failed. Therefore, new ideas to ban, tax and restrict foods served to school-aged children are needed, although there is no evidence these new measures will reduce total caloric intake. We do know all these taxes are regressive and adversely impact the poor, but the poor do not have as many votes as food growers or manufacturers.

We do need basic dietary guidelines but every five years the politics overwhelm the nutrition. The system to create the Dietary Guidelines is fatally flawed with self-interest from all sides.
Nutrition is a tower of Babel. The researchers speak in grams per kilograms of body weight. The Nutrition Facts Box is in grams when consumers barely understand ounces. No one really knows what a calorie is. Importantly, few consumers knows how much physical activity it takes to burn 100 calories, the new caloric yardstick from the food marketers at Cornell - it is a Hell of a lot of walking.

The Obama's personal chef goes on NPR to regale an audience with stories about how he picks vegetables from the White House garden every day for the First Family's dinner. FLOTUS, the First Lady, wows TV audiences with her ability to jump rope with national champions. Great for the Obamas, but what about the obese and morbidly obese?

RDs from across the nation who counsel obese patients, a far cry from the "ivory tower do gooders"  tell me their patients know a banana is better than many of the foods they eat, but they do not want to change what they eat. That's the bottom line. People have to want to change. Government cannot force it. Maybe if you live in Norway or Denmark but not in the good old USA.

Is there a viable solution? I think not. Don't look to Congress, the House and Senate are dysfunctional. The Administration is engaged in house to house and street by street warfare in what may be one of the the most crucial elections about the future of the country. Meanwhile, the food industry will continue to carpet bomb state initiatives to tax or restrict the marketing of their products.

It may take a catastrophe combination of diabetes, amputations, and heart disease in school-aged children to make everyone care enough to reconsider what they want to eat. What a tragedy?

Saturday, June 16, 2012

The Farm Bill: Vultures Feed on Sugar While Kids Go Hungry

First, this sugar story has nothing to do with obesity. It is a story about how the GOP has adopted Romney's Bain Capital approach to setting policy for the folks that produce cane or beet sugar under an archaic set of rules, supported by a handful of powerful rural Members of Congress.  It is a great story about the dysfunctional Congress, which rewards off shore multi-millionaires while slashing food aid for the nation's poorest urban school-aged children in order to balance the congressional budget numbers.

Sadly, it is a story that has been told before, every five years when Congress "reforms" farm policy. It is like that line from Casablanca, "go round up the usual suspects." Consumer groups, hunger organizations, environmentalists and yes, the self-serving food industry, ban together to try to "modify" the sugar program which is designed to keep US sugar prices high, well above world prices. There is no free market at work here, Congress and the USDA fix prices. If this kind of brazen activity took place in the private sector, the Justice Department's anti-trust division would be working overtime.

This year the GOP faces a daunting challenge - how do you support vast reductions in spending, including money for the farm bill and still bring home the bacon? The answer would warm Romney's heart. The rural members continue to keep sugar prices up, restrict much lower sugar imports, and they slash food aid for poor children in cities. It is a bi-partisan transgression. No "red" or "blue" states, just rural members "log rolling" against urban members who represent hungry children. GOP and Democratic Presidents have had more pressing matters to attend to when sugar pricing is under review.

This year presents the best alignment of the moon and the stars in recent memory. U.S. demand for sugar continues to far exceed domestic production capacity. Food manufacturers are abandoning high-fructose corn syrup for pure evaporated all natural cane juice. Such a nice name for a sugar that delivers the same caloric content as the "bad" HFCS. After fighting  the nutrition facts, the marketplace prevailed. To Hell with the nutrition science, give consumers what they want - a natural, pure source of sweetness.

Will Congress change the policy? Will USDA willingly allow more world sugar in? Who knows? And, who cares, except the growers who feed on federal support and the food companies that have to absorb or pass along the price increases to consumers?

Tuesday, June 5, 2012

Simpson Endorses Donuts, Changing POTUS Race

In an unexpected move, with great national political implications, Homer Simpson today endorsed donuts for POTUS (President of the United States).

Sitting in his car outside a Krispy Kreme store in Wilmington, NC, where the morbidly obese come to eat, Simpson said, "Personally, I like Krispy Kreme donuts but if I am on the road, following a hard day of campaigning to avoid meeting any people, and I see a Dunkin Donuts sign I exit and add  about eight hundred more calories (4 donuts) to my diet. This whole business about calories in vs. calories out, makes no sense to me. I have never met anybody named calorie and where are they going? I think attempts to ban sweets are unconstitutional. These tasty circles are essential to my health and general welfare which are guaranteed by our Founding Fathers."

OK, I made up the first part but it underscores an important aspect of the obesity debate.The food industry has known for years that when asked, people want every kind of information imaginable on the food package. Whether they can use all that information is another matter. They cannot. During fights over country of origin labeling, coffee companies, for example, produced fake labels listing 38 countries where the coffee may have been grown. Who cares and if you do, you are buying coffee at Starbucks.

If anyone outside the professional nutrition community understood what a calorie was, then it would make sense to label. But sadly not everyone is a Registered Dietitian. Some consumers may think too many calories are "bad" but how much is too much? Then, there is the debate about exercise and the finger pointing begins all over again. Urban schools cut recess because the playgrounds are unsafe from drive by shootings. Schools cut gym to focus on teaching kids how to pass the state educational progress tests. Upper-middle class schools substitute driver's education for gym -- you sure do burn calories when you hit the gas and brake pedals. No one walks home because their parents fear pediatric predators.

If you are like Homer Simpson and have a craving for a donut you better understand how much you will have to exercise to keep those cagey calories from turning into fat. Use the following link to calculate your own personal calorie counter: