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OpenMarket: Food and Beverage Regulation

  • House Votes This Week on Common Sense Nutritional Disclosure Bill

    February 8, 2016 3:40 PM

    Many, if not most proposals that make their way through Congress seem to have comically unsuitable names. However, at the end of this week the House of Representatives is expected to vote on a plan to remove one onerous, unneeded Obamacare regulation. A little known provision within Affordable Care Act (ACA) requires retail food establishments with 20 or more locations to list calories for regular menu items it serves on all signs and printed menus. While consumers might benefit from knowing calorie content, this one-size-fits-all mandate puts a big burden on small food retailers, and it could lead to unwanted price hikes. H.R. 2017—the Common Sense Nutrition Disclosure Act really is a common sense solution to the regulatory problem. 

    One problem is that a big cost government mandate may not mean big changes in consumer habits. The rule within ACA was intended to address the obesity problem in the U.S., but, as NYU population-health expert Brian Elbel found in his research on the effects of calorie labeling in New York City and Philadelphia restaurants, the requirement may not have any significant effect on customers’ ordering.

  • New Dietary Guidelines: Some Improvements but Also Fatal Flaws

    January 7, 2016 4:09 PM

    As expected, the nutritional guidelines for 2015-2020 thankfully excised the long-standing warning against cholesterol-laden food in the wake of several decades of research demonstrating that the original warning was neither based on scientific evidence. However, the updated guidelines still advise Americans limit saturated fat and, in attempt to push Americans toward a plant-based diet, limit meat consumption. The consequences of such advice might not only fail to improve Americans’ diets, but may exacerbate the obesity problem in America.  

    While stopping short of recommending that Americans eat a plant-based diet for the health of our bodies and the environment (a proposed recommendation that set off a bit of a firestorm), the recommendations only implicitly advise people to eat less meat (using the euphemism of “saturated fat” and protein) and explicitly advise we eat more vegetables and other “under-consumed food groups.” While the recommendations aren’t as strong as some would like, there’s definite message within them: animal products and processed foods are bad, vegetables and fruits are good.

    That message isn’t terrible. Americans could definitely stand to add more vegetables into their diet. But there’s a fundamental calculus that the dietary guidelines, and in fact most government nutritional advice, seem to not understand. There are only three fundamental macronutrients: fat, protein, and carbohydrate. To reduce one, you must increase one or both of the others. Vegetables are awesome (I’m a pescatarian myself), but they are also expensive and time-consuming compared to other kinds of meals. If HHS and USDA are sending the message that animal products (fat and protein) should be reduced what are Americans most likely to replace those calories with? The hope, of course, is that plant-based foods will replace meat calories, but it is easier and cheaper for families to replace them with carbohydrates. 

    While many assume that Americans eat more meat today than ever before and that this is a driving factor in obesity, this is incorrect. Our ancestors in the 19th century ate almost twice as much meat as we do today. In 1851, Americans ate between 150 and 200 pounds of meat per person per year (even slaves were allocated an average of 150 pounds of meat a year). Compare that to the 100 pounds of meat the average American adult eats now. The dietary recommendations advise that when we do eat dairy, it should be reduced fat and when we eat meat we should eat “lean,” meaning poultry or meat with fat trimmed off. However, Americans in 1851 almost never ate chicken or turkey, which were seen as “luxury” meats eaten only on special occasions. On the other hand, of the 100 pounds the average American eats today, about half is poultry. So, Americans now are eating half (or less) the amount of red meat as Americans in the 19th century and yet we are obese.

  • House Commerce Committee Approves "Pizza" Bill to Ease Onerous Calorie Labeling Rule

    November 23, 2015 7:02 AM

    While most consumers are blissfully unaware, a provision tucked into the Affordable Care Act could cause food vendors a lot of headaches. Starting on December 1, 2016, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) is supposed to require all chain food restaurants with 20 or more locations will have to list calorie information for “standard menu items” on all signs and printed menus. This includes pizza shops and grocery store salad or hot food bars which offer dizzying arrays of options and some that change daily. But businesses are fighting back and this week the House Energy and Commerce Committee passed a bill backed by many in the industry.

    The rule, which is intended to help Americans watch their waistlines, would cost shops—many of which are franchises owned by small business people—thousands of dollars to re-design signs and menus and millions of hours in compliance. In fact, the provision was named “third-most-onerous regulation of 2013” by President Obama’s own Office of Management and Budget. As I wrote earlier this month, the costs associated with calorie testing might also force craft beers off the menus of chain restaurants.

    If approved by Congress, the Common Sense Nutrition Disclosure Act of 2015 (H.R. 2017) would amend the FDA’s rules, adding flexibility in how chains comply with the nutritional disclosure requirement. Pizza shops, for example, would be allowed to disclose the nutritional content of their menu items online—a good thing since almost none of their customers ever enter their shops. It also removes criminal penalties for restaurants that accidentally serve customers a larger order than they expected. Seems reasonable enough, right?

  • Federal Menu Laws Need Some Common Sense

    November 2, 2015 4:36 PM

    This week, the House Energy and Commerce committee will hold a mark-up hearing on the Common Sense Nutrition Disclosure Act (H.R. 2017), a bipartisan bill intended to deal with a little-known provision of the Affordable Care Act that could increase the burden on small businesses and unintentionally increase the price families pay when they eat at restaurants.  

    Provision 4205 of the ACA requires that retail food establishments with 20 or more locations to list calories for regular menu items it serves on all signs and printed menus. The rule, which was named “third-most-onerous regulation of 2013” by Obama’s own Office of Management and Budget, is set to go into effect December 1, 2016, and covers restaurants, grocery stores, pizza shops, convenience stores, and vending machines. While the one-size-fits-all rule is intended to downsize America’s obesity problem, research shows that it’s unlikely to work. Brian Elbel, a population-health expert at the New York University School of Medicine looked at the effects of New York City and Philadelphia’s calorie menu labeling requirement and found no significant change in the customers’ orders after the calorie-rules went into effect.

    What the rule will do is supersize restaurants’ expenses, requiring an estimated 14.5 million hours to comply with the rule—costs which restaurants will almost certainly pass along to their customers. Franchises will be hit particularly hard. As Jason Stverak at Forbes noted, “Although the law is designed to target corporate fast-food giants, in practice it will largely affect individual franchises that effectively operate as independent small businesses…Each of these franchisees will now be tasked with complying with the mandate–paying for new signage, removing profit-generating advertisements to make room for the calorie data, updating menus every time recipies (sic) change, and accommodating inspectors.”

  • Drinking in the Dark

    October 26, 2015 9:50 AM

    Bellion Vodka has one strange website. Bellion claims to be “the next step in the evolution of spirits” and “a smarter way to drink.” Its secret is NTX—“a technology developed to evolve spirits by making them functional and smarter.”

    But if you’re hoping for more information, forget about it. There’s a warning that NTX will “not prevent alcohol intoxication, will not ameliorate the overall harmful effects that occur from drinking in excess, and will not render alcohol safe for those who suffer from alcoholism, liver disease, diabetes, or any other disease for which alcohol is contraindicated.” And there’s the factoid that NTX is trademarked by a company called Chigurupati Technologies.

    Now websites announcing new breakthroughs are sometimes deliberately designed with an air of mystery, keeping the details secret in order to raise public interest. But in this case the air of mystery comes not from some marketing guru, but from federal regulation. Google “Chigurupati Technologies” and you’ll be led to some additional information on how NTX somehow makes “drinking smarter,” but nothing that explains just what’s going on. And then you find this statement: “Federal regulations prohibit us from making any health related statements regarding NTX.”

  • On Added Sugars, Canada Gets Right What the U.S. Got Wrong

    October 4, 2015 11:30 AM

    Last month, I wrote about how the new nutritional labels might end up making Americans fatter and sicker. Particularly dangerous, in my opinion, is the addition of the “added sugars” requirement. Having both total sugar and added sugars may confuse some consumers, some of whom might think that foods with no or low added sugars are okay to indulge in, without thinking about the total amount of sugar in the item. Canadian health officials seem to have worried about the same issues when they considered, and ultimately rejected, requiring added sugars be listed on nutritional facts panels.

    Back in June, Health Canada announced plans to revise nutritional labeling requirements for foods sold in the country. As with the FDA’s proposed label change, Health Canada’s changes are intended to make deciphering the nutritional value of foods easier for consumers and hopefully aid them in making healthier choices. “Our Government is breaking new ground with our proposal on the labelling of sugars on foods sold in Canada,” said Rona Ambrose, Minister of Health in the press release. “Nowhere else in the world will consumers have the kind of information Canadians will have about the sugars contained in the foods they eat. This information will help them understand how much sugar is in a product, whether it’s a little or a lot of sugar, and where the sugar comes from.” Yet, Canada, unlike the U.S., decided that putting “added sugars” on food labels would be less helpful and more harmful for consumers. 

  • Proposed Food Label Change Could Make Us Fatter and Sicker

    September 21, 2015 11:07 AM

    There’s a new push to finalize the Food and Drug Administration’s new guidelines for nutritional panels. The changes, which include listing “added sugars” and updating serving sizes to reflect what people actually eat, are intended to make it easier for people to know what they’re eating and make better choices. However, newly published research suggests that the updated labeling guidelines could end up backfiring, causing people to eat more than they normally would.

    Last week, Reps. Adam Schiff (D-Calif.) and Rosa DeLauro (D-Conn.) sent a letter to FDA Acting Commissioner Stephen Ostroff praising the label changes—specifically the addition of added sugars—and urged the FDA to swiftly finalize the rule in order to address health problems such as obesity and diabetes. However, a study published last month in the journal Appetite demonstrates that the changes the new rules make to serving sizes could prompt people to eat more, ultimately making problems like obesity and diabetes worse.

    In an opinion piece published in last week’s Washington Post, the authors of the study—researchers from New York University and Duke University—wrote:

    In our study, we asked consumers what the serving size information on the Nutrition Facts label refers to. Less than 20 percent of people correctly thought the serving size refers to the amount of the product typically consumed in one sitting, while about 80 percent thought it recommended how much of that food they should eat.

    In their study, the researchers asked people waiting in line for a college basketball game to taste-test cookies. They were allowed to eat as many as they wanted after reading a sheet that had nutritional information on it. Half of the subjects received nutritional information as it would appear on a label today, the other half received information as it will be presented under the FDA’s new guidelines. The half that saw the information presented in the updated label, with increased serving size, ate 41 percent more cookies.

  • Time to Throw out Michelle Obama's Lunch Program?

    September 17, 2015 3:45 PM

    As I wrote in The Hill today, Congress this month will decide whether or not to continue funding Michelle Obama’s favorite Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act. The goal of the program was to address childhood obesity by getting schools to adhere to government nutritional standards in exchange for federal funds. Five years after implementation, we must ask if the program has achieved its laudable goals or if it is time to put those fifteen billion dollars to better use.

    HHFKA, enacted in 2010, requires schools to offer more fruits and vegetables, less sugar, less sodium, and more whole grains in order to receive federal funding supporting free breakfasts and lunches at school. According to a report released last month by the Centers for Disease Control, the number of schools in the nation complying with federal nutrition standards has significantly increased. Since 2000, schools offering two or more vegetables and two or more fruit options with lunch has increased by about 18 and 10 percent, respectively. About 40 and 50 percent of schools switched to low-sodium canned vegetables (instead of regular canned vegetables) and used other seasonings instead of salt since 2000. This sounds like great progress, but it doesn’t tell us if kids are actually eating healthier as a result.

    Obesity among children between two and five years old has declined 3.7 percent from 2010 to 2012. However, for kids between 12 and 19 years old, the obesity rate increased by 2.1 percent. Overall, childhood obesity has remained fairly stable between 2008 and 2012. What does this mean? It means obesity is an immensely complicated and long-term disease that takes years and potentially hundreds of genetic and environmental factors to manifest.

    What these numbers do show us is that the declines and increases occurring now are just part of a trend that has been developing over more than 10 years. Childhood obesity rates for almost all age groups declined between 2008 and 2012 (if temporarily). Only 12-19 year olds saw consistently increasing obesity rates since 1980. But even that group had something of a plateau between 2002 and 2010, seeing only slight increases of 0.3 percent to 0.7 percent. Yet, as I noted, between 2010 and 2012 that rate jumped by 2.1 percent.

  • New York City's Salt Warning: Useless and Potentially Harmful

    September 11, 2015 12:16 PM

    You may have heard on the news that New York City is, once again, on the cutting edge of interfering with consumers and businesses. This time they’ve decided to mandate that chain restaurants add a warning to items that are too high in salt. The rule is supposed to be aimed at informing consumers and helping to reduce hypertension and cardiovascular risk. However, it will not reduce peoples’ overall sodium consumption and may end up putting them at greater risk for disease.

    Unanimously approved by the New York City Board of Health Board of Health, that notorious government body fond of overstepping its legal authority (recall the big soda ban?), the new rule requires chain restaurants in the city to put a symbol—a salt shaker in a black triangle—next to menu items with more than 2,300 milligrams of sodium. Why 2,300? Because that is the recommended daily limit the U.S. Department of Agriculture and Centers for Disease Control and Prevention continue to recommend despite the fact that in 2013 researches at the Institute of Medicine, at the request of the CDC itself, found “studies on health outcomes are inconsistent in quality and insufficient in quantity to determine that sodium intakes below 2,300 mg/day either increase or decrease the risk of heart disease, stroke, or all-cause mortality in the general U.S. population.”

    Sodium is an essential requirement for the human body. It regulates blood plasma volume, is used for muscle contractions, nerve transmissions, and pH balance. It is vital in maintaining fluid balance and cardiovascular function. And research seems to show that how much salt we eat is physiologically determined that even extreme interventions do little to alter.

  • Study "Wounds" the Carbohydrate-Insulin Theory of Obesity

    August 24, 2015 3:53 PM

    Last week a very interesting and, by all accounts, very well-done study made waves among the nutritional science community. For many years, the idea that reducing carbohydrates is the most effective way to reduce fat due to its effect on insulin has been rapidly gaining in popularity.

    Prominent researchers like Dr. Robert Lustig (who famously called sugar a “poison”), and Gary Taubes (author of Good Calories, Bad Calories) have promoted the idea that it’s not just about how much you eat, but what you eat, that leads to obesity. Specifically, that carbohydrates and sugar cause a cascade of problems including insulin resistance, obesity, and type 2 diabetes. This new study, however, casts serious doubt on the hypothesized mechanism by which consumption of carbohydrates, in particular, would lead to these problems.

    The study, led by Dr. Kevin D. Hall, was published in the highly respected Cell Metabolism journal on August 13 and found that restricting dietary fat led to body fat loss that was 68 percent higher than a diet that reduced the same number of calories through carbohydrates for obese adults. The study was small, with only 19 participants, and short, lasting only four weeks.

    However, it was a well-designed and tightly controlled study. As neurobiologist Stephan Guyenet put it, “this study's methods were downright obsessive. The overall study design and diets were extremely tightly controlled, and the researchers took a large number of measurements using gold-standard methods.” The participants were randomly assigned to either the low-carb group or the low-fat group. After five days of baseline eating, the participants had their calories restricted by reducing either fat or carbohydrates by 30 percent (sugar was the same in both groups).

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