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OpenMarket: Food and Beverage Regulation

  • In Memoriam: Elizabeth Whelan

    September 16, 2014 12:21 PM

    I was very sad to hear last week that Elizabeth Whelan, founder and president of the American Council on Science and Health, had passed away. Beth had a great scientific mind—always asking questions, and always seeking new knowledge—not just information, but understanding. And it was that innate desire to know, to better understand, and to share the truth that led her, in 1978, to found an organization dedicated to injecting solid scientific information into public debates and public policy on public health. Under Beth’s leadership, and with her aggressive, no nonsense activism, ACSH became a leading voice in science advocacy and “go to” source of information about a range of science and health issues.


    I came to know Beth many years ago after becoming interested in food and drug safety issues. As a young policy wonk with no formal scientific training, I sought out as many respected scientific advisors as I could find to guide me. It wasn’t long before several of the scientists I consulted directed me to ACSH, and to Beth Whelan in particular. She was a nutritionist by training—having completed an Sc.D. at Harvard and a M.P.H. at Yale—and a greatly respected one at that. But I found her to be both incredibly knowledgeable about a broad range of science and public health issues and eager to teach a budding young scholar like myself.

  • CDC Study: Kids Eat Same Amount of Sodium as Worldwide Average

    September 12, 2014 8:33 AM

    It’s not exactly a blood-pressure raising headline, which is probably why the new report from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention is actually bears the alarming titled, High Sodium Intake in Children and Adolescents: Cause for Concern. The study will no doubt be hailed by public health advocates as proof that something must be done to bring America’s sodium intake in line with the recommendations of the CDC and other health originations. However, the report’s findings, when put into context of 50 years’ worth of research on global salt consumption aren’t alarming at all.


    High sodium intake is associated with all sorts of nasty health problems—as the CDC was careful to note in the opening paragraph of its report. As NBC News put it:


    Studies clearly show that eating a lot of salt can raise blood pressure — not in every single person, but in a significant percentage of the population. The latest survey of what kids eat shows that more than 90 percent of them are eating far too much salt...

  • Cops to Destroy Rare Wine Collection in Pennsylvania

    August 22, 2014 2:12 PM

    In the fifth century BCE, famous Greek tragedian Euripides supposedly said, “where this no wine there is no love.” This certainly holds true in present day Pennsylvania, which has one of the nation’s strictest alcohol regulatory regimes. And according to Tom Wark, executive director for the American Wine Consumer Coalition, Pennsylvania is “the worst state to live in if you're a wine lover." In Philadelphia, one man surely isn’t feeling the brotherly love after police raided his home and seized 2,426 bottles of rare wine—with an estimated value of more than $125,000—that the police reportedly plan to “destroy.”

  • Happy There’s-No-Such-Thing-as-Junk-Food Day!

    July 21, 2014 1:54 PM

    Whomever it is that decides the dates for the ever multiplying obscure holidays apparently designated today, July 21, as “Junk Food Day.” While the origin and intended purpose of the day is a mystery, it’s a good opportunity to address the myth of junk food. I say myth because junk food is an oxymoron; there’s no such thing. There is food that is less nutritious or perhaps higher in calories than what people normally think of as “health foods,” but calling food “junk” implies that is without value. As Professors Stanley Feldman (of London University and the Imperial College School of Medicine) Vincent Marks of the University of Surrey, put it in their book Panic Nation,“[e]ither something is a food, in which case it is not junk, or it has no nutritional value, in which case it cannot be called a food.”


    Over the last year, the news about the so-called obesity epidemic in the US gives one reasons to be cautiously optimistic. Headlines have declared that abdominal obesity rates among kids are “levelling off” and studies show that folks with higher BMIs may not necessarily be at greater risk of dying from heart disease than those with “normal” BMIs. But that hasn’t stopped self-styled health advocates from declaring that we’re “losing the war” on obesity and calling for greater restrictions on what, where, and how food can be sold or advertised. 


    Whether it’s warning letters on sodajunk food taxes, pressuring food makers to reduce ingredients like salt or caffeine, or restricting sales and increasing prices on alcohol, proposals by public health advocates have one thing in common: people are not smart enough or strong enough to consume in moderation foods and ingredients that can make up an unhealthy diet when over-consumed. Which foods they consider “junk” are based on “accepted wisdom” about what constitutes an unhealthy food. However, the track record for these advocates as well as government agencies in implementing “accepted wisdom,” about nutrition is less than stellar.


  • FDA’s Trans Fat “Ban” a First Foray into Controlling Americans’ Diets

    July 14, 2014 1:00 PM

    Last November, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) announced its plan to revoke the “Generally Recognized As Safe” designation for partially hydrogenated oils (PHOs), which would create a de facto ban on the additive that is still used in foods such as pie crust, pastries, shortening, frostings, and fried foods.


    Many health-conscious Americans make an effort to avoid PHOs or trans fats—carefully reading labels to make sure the disfavored fat is limited in their diets. The ingredient is already considered by most to be something consumed as little as possible, evidenced by the fact that Americans have voluntarily reduced consumption from an average of 4.6 grams a day in 2003 to around 1 gram a day in 2012. This, as I’ve argued in the past, is why the FDA targeted trans fats for its first-ever attempt to regulate ingredients it finds not harmful in the acute sense, but unhealthy; because they knew few would protest the banishing of an ingredient most already find distasteful. But, this sets the precedent that will make it possible for the FDA to go after other ingredients in the future, like salt, sugar, and caffeine.


  • Celebrate Food Freedom this 4th of July

    July 3, 2014 10:56 AM


    “If people let the government decide what foods they eat and what medicines they take, their bodies will soon be in as sorry a state as are the souls of those who live under tyranny.” –Thomas Jefferson

    By 1939, most Americans realized that national alcohol prohibition was a complete disaster. The “noble experiment” intended to solve societal harms linked with alcohol consumption was an utter failure and would foster in Americans a permanent distrust of food or drink bans “for our own good.” Modern self-styled public health advocates have learned from prohibitionists' mistakes: if you eliminate food choices slowly, people are less likely to protest.


    By passing laws and implementing regulations, health advocates have been able to increase the cost, limit availability, and removed the choice of consuming certain foods or ingredients they deem “unhealthy.” While the methods may differ, the intent and the results are largely the same. Health advocates want to engineer a world in which we can only make the choices they have decided are the best for us. The result is a loss of freedom and independence by baby steps.


    Earlier this year, the Food and Drug Administration announced its plan to revoke the “Generally Recognized As Safe” designation for partially hydrogenated oils (PHOs), which would create a de facto ban on the additive commonly used in foods such as pie crust, pastries, shortening, and fried foods (among other things). Despite the fact that PHOs have been used by Americans for over a hundred years, the FDA asserts that artificial trans fats (contained in PHOs) can increase the risk of heart disease.


    As I wrote in November 2013, this is a sea change for the FDA. Rather than protecting people from unknowingly consuming foods that are likely to cause harm, the FDA has now turned to protecting consumers from the cumulative harms of poor dietary choices over the course of a lifetime—something they are already aware of (nobody believes a lifelong diet of fried chicken and cherry pies will allow them to live to 120 years old!).


    As the FDA itself admitted, Americans have already virtually eliminated trans fats from their diet, from an average of 4.6 grams per day in 2003 to about 1 gram per day in 2012. And as I noted in my comments to the FDA, while there are studies showing a slight increase in heart disease risk at the higher levels of consumption, there’s no scientific basis for assuming there are risks at the very low levels Americans are currently consuming trans fats and no reason to assume further reductions will result in any health benefits. Of course, the FDA’s decision is less about science than it is about politics.


  • FDA’s Salt Phobia a Waste of Money

    June 23, 2014 1:31 PM

    The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) announced last week plans to phase in “voluntary” reduction in the level of sodium in foods produced by manufacturers and served in restaurants. I have “voluntary” in quotes because, despite the lack of an official regulation, pressure from an agency that could make it impossible for a business to stay in business is about as voluntary as putting a gun to someone’s head.


    Since the 1980s the FDA has recommended that Americans reduce their daily intake of sodium as a way to prevent the risk of high blood pressure, strokes, and other problems. But their constant harping on the sodium issue has done nothing to convince consumers to change. In fact, the level of sodium consumption hasn’t changed since the 1950s. It has remained steadily at an average of about 3,700 milligrams per day. And it’s not just Americans—that level is consistent among humans around the globe.


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