A lot has been happening in the world of food politics this month, so I thought I’d share some links and commentary in case you’ve missed these headlines.
First up, GMO labeling:
GMOs, or Genetically Modified Organisms, have been a hot topic in the food and nutrition world for a few years now. Arguments against GMOs relate to transparency and unknown implications on health, agriculture and environment.
Pro-GMO arguments state that GMOs help make agriculture more efficient by creating the strongest, most durable, fastest growing versions of foods. They also use the matter of improving consumer satisfaction – removing seeds, quick cooking varieties and fruit that tastes like ballpark candy.
Marion Nestle does a nice round-up on her blog about the new bill that’s pending for GMO labeling. There are three options proposed for how the labeling will work – a QR reader on food labels that would require people to have smart phones, a standard symbol developed by the USDA, or a statement that food contains GMOs present on the food label. The QR reader is the favorite of the food and grocery industry, because they know people won’t actually use it. QR readers have been around for years now and I’ve never used one. You need a special app, right? Plus, this is just something that the people who are already aware and concerned will use. The whole idea behind labeling GMOs is to make this information easier and more accessible to everyone, not just the well-informed.
Another round-up of the GMO bill comes from Civil Eats, an excellent resource for all food news. As with all politics, the language in the bill has resulted in mixed analysis. Will commercially grown GMO corn, soy, canola and sugar be included in this labeling? The bill defines bioengineering as “genetic materials that have been modified through in vitro recombinant deoxyribonucleic acid (DNA) techniques” but what about other modifications? Soda and other super refined products don’t contain any of the genetic material but are still derived from genetically modified organisms. Salmon is genetically modified using genes found in nature rather than those engineered via in vitro technology.
As of now, GMO labeling under this bill is only applicable to food for human consumption, so pet food is exempt. Restaurants and similar food retail businesses are also exempt from this labeling requirement.
You are what you eat, right? Not according to this bill, since animal derived products aren’t considered bioengineered if an animal was fed with bioengineered feed.
Next up: the new Food Nutrition Label
On a slightly less skeptical note, health has beat industry with the passing of the new nutrition label designs.
Some highlights include a greater emphasis on calories, including a more realistic representation of what people eat as opposed to what they’re supposed to eat. Research states that certain package sizes influence how much we eat, so for packages that are technically two serving sizes, like a 20-ounce soda, are now listed as one serving. You might say that this promotes drinking 20-ounce sodas as opposed to smaller portions, but it really makes the nutrition information more translatable for the consumer. Think about it, do you do the math, even if it’s a simple calculation, when you glance at a food label? No, neither do I.
The new label also features information on added sugars. This is huge, and received a lot of push-back from the food industry. New labels will be required to include the amount of added sugar in addition to the natural sugars present. So products like fruit yogurts will list the sugars that are naturally present in the fruit and the sugar they add to make your yogurt taste like pudding. This addition is based on research that says “it’s difficult to meet nutrient needs while staying within calorie limits if you consume more than 10 percent of daily calories from added sugars.”
Other changes include the addition of vitamin D and potassium, updated sodium and fiber related to percent daily value, and clearer language around the percent daily value. All changes appear to be heavily based on nutrition research, which in some cases can be misleading (a lot of industry sponsored studies), with improved consumer health as a priority.
Finally, Updated School Nutrition Standards:
School food is a big issue right now. Childhood obesity stats are driving the campaign for healthier options offered and more in-depth nutrition and food education in schools. While these standards don’t address the educational component, they are a step forward in providing healthier options for kids.
The standards are based on the Smart Snack Standards introduced in 2010 under the Healthy, Hunger-free Kids Act. The Smart Snack Standards include whole grain-rich foods, calorie limits for meals and snacks, fruit and vegetable requirements and other nutrient limits. More details can be found on this pdf.
The updated standards put a ban on marketing of products that don’t comply with the Smart Snack Standards of 2010. Again, there’s some vague language so it’s unclear whether incentive programs like fast food coupons for kids who read a certain number of books or the box-top incentives will be exempt.
The updated standards include outside food brought into classrooms for birthday parties or other celebrations. Basically, any food item that affects the group rather than individuals will be subject to the Smart Snack Standards.
The Community Eligibility Provision (CEP), which provides free meals for children of low-income families doesn’t seem to be affected too much from the updated standards, but that is likely due to the fact that there are already some hefty regulations on the nutrition content of the meals it provides.
See what Civil Eats says on the matter here.