The Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee met for the fourth, but not final meeting, on May 26-27 in Washington DC. The Committee continued deliberations over its recommendations on nutrition and exercise. The USDA and HHS are scheduled to review the Committee’s final report, expected in August, and use it to update the next set of dietary guidelines, scheduled for release in January, 2005. Of particular concern to the 13-member committee are findings of national food surveys showing that adults are not consuming enough food rich in vitamins A, C and E as well as folate, calcium, magnesium, zinc, potassium and fiber. Children are falling short on vitamin E, folic acid, calcium, magnesium, potassium and fiber. These findings are not surprising given the amount of industrialized and processed foods in the American diet–but Committee recommendations say nothing about avoiding processed foods or the importance of food quality.
Instead, true to form, the Fatty Acid subcommittee continued its relentless denigration of saturated fats and cholesterol, continuing to recommend that dietary intake should be kept to a minimum. According to one member of the panel, the recommendations could mean that as many as half of men ages 35 and older and half of women 45 years and older will be advised to reduce their intake of cholesterol-rich food. On a more positive note, the committee also advised limiting trans fats to less than 1 percent of total calories consumed daily.
Other predictable and lightweight recommendations include watching portion size and total calories, increasing the amount of fatty fish to two portions per week, increasing dietary fiber, getting more vitamin D from fortified milk products or supplements and exercising more.
On the touchy issue of soft drinks, the Committee weaseled with the following statement: “When individuals consume food or beverages that are high in added sugars, there is strong documentation that they also consume more energy than those who consume low amounts of added sugars. There is evidence that sugar-sweetened beverages are not as well regulated as calories in the solid form.” This is as far as the Committee would go against the very powerful soft drink and processed food industry.
The final meeting of the Committee will be held in August.
Soy Infant Formula
In December of 2003, Sally Fallon testified before the Food and Drug Administration’s (FDA) Food Advisory Committee on health issues related to an infant’s consumption of soy infant formula. We followed up by sending each Committee member a copy of the testimony along with an extensive set of research documents attesting to the negative health impact of soy formula. This same information was also sent to Dr. Charles Maize, head of FDA’s section on medical specialty foods and infant formula and the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) in Chicago. (At a meeting last year, Dr. Peter Murano of the FDA advised us to meet with AAP as “FDA follows AAP recommendations.”) We received no response from either agency. In fact, AAP advised us not to contact them again; that they would respond to our inquiry in the spring after their nutrition committee had met. The Foundation has yet to receive a response from the AAP.
Trans Fatty Acids and Total Fat
On April 27 and 28, FDA’s Nutrition Subcommittee of the Center for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition met to deliberate three questions:
1. One eligibility criterion that FDA has applied to most health claim regulations pertaining to heart disease risk is that foods bearing these claims must be low in total fat. What does the current evidence suggest in terms of total fat intake and risk of coronary heart disease?
2. The Dietary Guidelines Committee may suggest that less than 1 percent of energy should be obtained from trans fatty acids (2 g per day for a 2,000 kcal diet). Does the scientific evidence support this level?
3. When compared to saturated fatty acids, are trans fatty acids considered to be more, less or similarly adverse with respect to coronary heart disease?
Dr. Mary Enig, our vice president and science advisor, testified before the Committee. The key points she made are:
- Infants, as they had more trans fatty acids in their diets from breast milk of mothers who consumed large amounts of processed foods, ended up with visual-acuity problems.
- Asthma is increasing in children from the higher levels of trans fatty acids consumed from processed foods.
- Children who are consuming partially hydrogenated vegetable fats in their crackers and cookies are not getting enough unrefined carbohydrates to make their own saturated fats and they are not getting enough saturated fats in the foods that they are eating because they have been replaced by the trans fatty acids found in most processed foods.
- Children need saturated fats in their lungs for lung surfactant, not more trans fatty acids.
- Amounts of trans fatty acids consumed can range anywhere from 2 grams at the low end for people who are not eating much processed foods up to 40 grams daily.
- Industrially produced trans fatty acids are not required in human nutrition nor should they be found in any amount in our diets. We have no need for trans fatty acids in our phospholipids and we have no need for trans fatty acids in our lungs.
Dr. Enig argued forcefully about the beneficial health effects of saturated fats, but many of the Committee members still urged minimizing saturated fats along with trans fatty acids. However, they did agree that, in answering question #3, when compared to saturated fatty acids, trans fatty acids are considered to be more adverse with respect to coronary heart disease.
In regards to the first question, they leaned towards incorporating a caveat in the phrasing of the question to state that any recommendation made by the Committee regarding total fat and coronary heart disease should be independent of saturated fat intake. After Dr. Enig’s testimony, they decided to eliminate the caveat and voted that total fat intake is not associated with the risk of coronary heart disease.
Regarding question #2 on the recommended daily intake of trans fatty acids, the Committee came up with the following statement: “Although current scientific evidence does not indicate a specific acceptable daily intake for trans fatty acids, it is consistent with reducing trans fatty acid intake to a level of less than 1 percent of energy (2 grams per day for a 2,000 kilocalorie diet).”
The House of Representatives passed its “Personal Responsibility in Food Consumption Act of 2004” on March 10 by a vote of 276-139. This bill would prevent lawsuits against the food industry for making people obese although it would still allow claims to go forward if state or federal laws had been broken and as a result a person gained weight. The bill supporters say consumers have to realize they cannot blame others for the consequences of their actions. Critics say the food industry now does not have to worry about public health. The vote came a day after a new study said obesity was likely to become the nation’s biggest preventable killer, overtaking smoking. Democrats said the industry did not need the federal protection. The bill’s sponsor, Florida Republican Representative Ric Keller, said the legislation was all about “common sense and personal responsibility.” House Republicans said fast-food franchises and mom-and-pop restaurants should not take the blame for the public’s poor eating choice and lack of exercise.
Louisiana has passed similar state legislation. Nineteen other state legislatures–Arizona, California, Colorado, Florida, Georgia, Idaho, Illinois, Kentucky, Mississippi, Missouri, Nebraska, New Hampshire, Ohio, Pennsylvania, South Dakota, Tennessee, Utah, Washington and Wisconsin–were considering similar bills. The White House endorsed the bill, which the Senate is not expected to pass this year. In the past, senators have blocked measures to protect certain industries from lawsuits, so the Cheeseburger Bill could set a dangerous precedent.
Most obesity claims have been dismissed in court. Last year, a federal judge in New York dismissed two class-action suits blaming McDonald’s for making people fat. Yet the fast food industry knows that it has a problem on its hands with the addition of large amounts of MSG to virtually all processed food. (See the article on how MSG causes obesity on page 36.)
USDA Claims French Fries (Oops, Patriot Fries), Are, in Fact, Fresh Vegetables
The US Department of Agriculture and a federal judge in Texas recently decided that the popular high-trans-fat, high-calorie french fry is a fresh vegetable. US District Judge Richard Schell endorsed little-noticed changes by the USDA to federal regulations that govern what defines a fresh vegetable. The changes were made at the behest of the french fry industry, which has spent the past five decades pushing for revisions to the Perishable Agricultural Commodities Act. Known as PACA, the law was passed by Congress in 1930 to protect fruit and vegetable farmers in the event that their customers went out of business without paying for their produce.
Under an obscure USDA rule, most frozen french fries have been considered fresh vegetables since 1996. Now they all are, under a revision last year that added batter-coated, frozen french fries to the list of fresh produce. In his ruling in a lawsuit that challenged the designation, Schell sided with the USDA argument that the PACA law is so ambiguous on the definition of fresh fruits and vegetables that it should be left to the agency to define what it means.
The Frozen Potato Products Institute appealed to the USDA in 2000 to change its definition of fresh produce under the law to include batter-coated, frozen french fries, arguing that rolling potato slices in a starch coating, frying them and freezing them is the equivalent of waxing a cucumber or sweetening a strawberry. The USDA agreed and, on June 2, 2003, amended its PACA rules to include what is described in court documents as the “Batter-Coating Rule.” Among the documents cited in the lawsuit is a patent from french-fry maker Lamb Weston on how to make batter-coated fries, including direction that the potatoes be coated with an “aqueous starch-enrobing slurry.” The french-fry rule calls to mind the USDA’s attempt in 1981 to classify ketchup and pickle relish as vegetables, an idea that was dropped amid public protests.
The USDA officials who oversee the PACA said french fries were considered a fresh vegetable because the statute only defined fruits and vegetables in two ways: fresh or processed. Potatoes are the largest-selling vegetable in the US. The average American eats more than 140 pounds of potatoes a year, about one-third of which is frozen french fries.
About a quarter of all french fries produced are coated with batter, a process that helps preserve the fries’ crispness and color while under heat lamps. The USDA has ruled that produce that is frozen or packed in ice qualifies for PACA protections. So do fruits and vegetables that have been steamed, blanched, gassed, colored, cured, peeled and waxed, among other things, as long as the produce has not been “manufactured into articles of a different kind of character.” USDA officials had ruled previously that french fries were not covered by PACA because they were cooked or processed. But industry perseverance paid off in 1996, when USDA ruled produce that is “oil blanched” would be covered. In 2000, the Frozen Potato Products Institute obtained an advisory opinion from the USDA saying that batter-coated french fries, given their increasing popularity, should be considered fresh vegetables too. At the potato institute’s urging, the USDA made its opinion an official regulation last year.
Business Alliance for Local Living Economies (BALLE) Conference, Philidelphia PA
The Business Alliance for Local Living Economies (BALLE) operates nationally, regionally, and locally in its mission to build a “living economy”–one that “works in harmony with natural systems, supports both biological and cultural diversity, and fosters fulfilling and enjoyable community life for all people.” Seventeen regional “nodes” have been created to serve local businesses with information, education, local sourcing and other services. As part of BALLE’s organizing effort, each member group is constructing a sourcing database of sustainable local businesses to be linked on the BALLE Web site.
BALLE hosted its 2nd annual local economies conference at the end of May at the University of Pennsylvania. Topics of discussion included best practices of local business networks, local Living Economy business models, bringing capital back to our communities, public policy changes for a positive future, education for sustainability, equity and diversity in sustainable businesses, organizing Local First campaigns and connecting local economies globally. While topics included local farm sustainability, no distinction was made by BALLE presenters between organic/pasture-raised and industrial agricultural practices. The Foundation will continue its efforts to educate these good folks on this distinction.
For more information about BALLE, please go to their website: http://www.livingeconomies.org/BALLE/.
NATIONAL FOOD POLICY CONFERENCE, WASHINGTON, DC The Consumer Federation of America sponsored its 27th annual National Food Policy Conference on May 6-7 in Washington, DC. The Conference provides a forum for all sides of the various food issues to present their case. Topics included the need for obesity lawsuits, how we are responding to obesity health issues, the changing marketplace for food biotechnology, international food policy concerns, food safety updates and bioterrorism, labeling and health claims and Mad Cow Disease. Pepsico, Kraft and McDonald’s all presented their views on how their companies are not responsible for any of the obesity epidemic and how they are marketing healthier foods to our population. Mad Cow Disease discussions ranged from the CEO of Creekstone Farms, John Stewart, who spoke of USDA’s efforts to prevent him from testing all his animals for BSE, thus stymieing his efforts to export his beef to Japan, to Secretary of Agriculture Anne Veneman artfully dodging pointed questions about USDA negligence in cow testing. For more information on the Consumer Federation of America, please see http://www.consumerfed.org.
This article appeared in Wise Traditions in Food, Farming and the Healing Arts, the quarterly magazine of the Weston A. Price Foundation, Summer 2004.