Thursday, March 21, 2019

Preventing chronic disease (evidence versus Google's featured snippets)

Scientifically dubious information may sometimes appear in Google's "featured snippets."

An online search -- in Google of course -- turns up all sorts of scammy sites offering advice on how to optimize web content so that it appears in these featured snippets.

When we Google "preventing Parkinson's", we get advice to consume the co-enzyme CoQ10, but research in the journal Neurological Science found no benefit.

Similarly, when we Google "preventing colon cancer," we get a featured snippet with advice from Mayo Clinic (a reputable source):
Make lifestyle changes to reduce your risk
You can take steps to reduce your risk of colon cancer by making changes in your everyday life. Take steps to:
  • Eat a variety of fruits, vegetables and whole grains. Fruits, vegetables and whole grains contain vitamins, minerals, fiber and antioxidants, which may play a role in cancer prevention. Choose a variety of fruits and vegetables so that you get an array of vitamins and nutrients.
  • Drink alcohol in moderation, if at all. If you choose to drink alcohol, limit the amount of alcohol you drink to no more than one drink a day for women and two for men.
  • Stop smoking. Talk to your doctor about ways to quit that may work for you.
  • Exercise most days of the week. Try to get at least 30 minutes of exercise on most days. If you've been inactive, start slowly and build up gradually to 30 minutes. Also, talk to your doctor before starting any exercise program.
  • Maintain a healthy weight. If you are at a healthy weight, work to maintain your weight by combining a healthy diet with daily exercise. If you need to lose weight, ask your doctor about healthy ways to achieve your goal. Aim to lose weight slowly by increasing the amount of exercise you get and reducing the number of calories you eat.

That is mostly good advice, with one big omission. Authoritative research summaries from the World Cancer Research Fund (WCRF) and American Cancer Society (ACS) recommend lowering risk of colorectal cancer by eating less processed meats (such as bacon and sausage).

These authoritative sources appear further down the list of Google results for "preventing colon cancer," overshadowed by the incomplete information in the featured snippet.

Tuesday, February 12, 2019

Should data on SNAP sales by retailer be available for analysis?

The U.S. Supreme Court this week scheduled a hearing on April 22 about an important case for policies to address the adequacy of food retail access, especially for low-income communities.

Knowing the amount of SNAP sales by retailer would help for (1) identifying "food deserts," (2) understanding how SNAP contributes to healthy food environments, and (3) determining whether policy innovations or changes in retail practices could further increase the beneficial impact of SNAP.

In 2011, the South Dakota Argus Leader asked USDA to share such data. Retailers objected to the sharing, and USDA declined to approve the release under Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) rules, so the case went to court. Eventually, appeals courts ruled for the Argus Leader. USDA would have released the data, but the Food Marketing Institute (FMI), the leading food retail trade association, appealed the case to the U.S. Supreme Court. See SCOTUSblog for more on this history and links to the legal documents.

The Argus Leader yesterday noted that the implications go beyond food policy: "The outcome of Food Marketing Institute v. Argus Leader Media could have broad implications for what the federal government can keep secret under the Freedom of Information Act."

An FMI statement last month said, "It is a critically important case that will clarify the protections from disclosure applicable to confidential business information that private parties submit to the government." But is this really confidential information submitted by private parties? USDA spends public money for a public purpose, and the Argus Leader just is asking USDA to share its own spending data, much as USDA already must share information about who receives farm subsidies, or what big businesses receive federal contracts. Businesses receiving government money sometimes wish the amounts would be secret, but it makes sense in a democracy that these amounts should be public.

Supporters of the FMI position say retailers will suffer competitive harm if the data are released. For example, in recorded Congressional debate (time 4:31:00) last year, Rep. Dan Newhouse (R-WA) expresses concern about "food deserts" and says the data release would "poach customers and revenues." First, retailers already have plenty of commercial intelligence about each others' business. Second, more importantly, is Rep. Newhouse's argument internally inconsistent? The only way a competitor could poach customers and revenues is by adding retail locations in the vicinity, which improves food retail access. For a retailer in a particular location, if competitors see some data and decide to stay away, then the business result is a competitive benefit not a harm.

If these data were public, we would all understand the role of SNAP in local food retail environments better. If FMI cares about the healthfulness and adequacy of the local food retail environment for low-income Americans, I would encourage the trade association to drop this appeal. This lawsuit does not serve the public interest.

Friday, February 08, 2019

The long road to the Healthy Hunger-Free Kids Act of 2010, and the long road afterward

Nutrition Today (.pdf) has published a nice history of the initial struggle to design and pass ... and the later struggle to implement ... the Healthy Hunger-Free Kids Act of 2010.

Colin Schwartz and Margo Wootan of the Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI) summarize considerable familiar material, but also provide insight into less widely understood details. For example, while this legislation usually is described purely as an Obama administration victory, the authors highlight much of the preparation that already took place during the W. Bush administration. The continuing policy arguments after passage also are notable. It is true with any legislation, and especially true for this law, that the road to administrative rule-making and implementation may be as important as the initial passage of the bill.

I will add this article to the syllabus for my U.S. food policy class (for a week on child nutrition programs).

Schwartz and Wootan (2019). [Click for larger image].

Wednesday, January 02, 2019

SSB taxes from the distinct perspectives of diverse stakeholder groups

Previous studies found sugar-sweetened beverage taxes are cost-effective from the societal perspective. Our new article in the American Journal of Public Health argues that policy-making in a democracy depends on costs and benefits for particular stakeholders.

Friday, December 07, 2018

Let's see the research before reversing school lunch standards

After years of effort to strengthen nutrition standards, based on scientific reports from the National Academies and others, leading to the Healthy Hunger-Free Kids Act of 2010, USDA yesterday published a final rule that rolled back the proposed standards in three ways: (1) delaying implementation of interim standards for sodium, and giving up on the eventual more ambitious standards; (2) allowing sweetened flavored low-fat milk, and (3) relaxing rules to encourage whole grain content.

It is good to base major child nutrition policy decisions on the best and most recent research. Every few years, USDA publishes a major School Nutrition Dietary Assessment (SNDA) and a school meals cost study. The last SNDA, in 2012, found that many school meals fell short of targets for whole grains and sodium, for example.

For the most recent such research, USDA funded a major study by Mathematica Policy Research that for the first time would combine the previously separate studies into a single more coherent School Nutrition and Meal Cost Study (SNMCS). The Mathematica website lists the study as running from 2013-2017. The study has long been awaiting clearance at USDA.

For sound science-based policy-making, an appealing option for USDA could have been to first publish this important study and then afterwards publish the final rule on school meals standards. However, this week the order was reversed, with policy decision first. We will read the scientific report with great interest when it is published.

Wednesday, December 05, 2018

Seeking grant proposals for research on USDA nutrition assistance programs

The Tufts/UConn RIDGE Program seeks to support innovative economic research on domestic nutrition assistance programs and to broaden a network of researchers applying their expertise to USDA topics. The RIDGE Program seeks applications from a diverse community of experienced nutrition assistance researchers, graduate students, early career scholars, and established researchers who bring expertise in another research area.

Full details are available in the 2019 Request for Proposals (RFP). Additional information will be provided during the RIDGE Informational Webinar for ApplicantsMonday, December 17, 2018 at 12PM EST

Important Dates for the 2019 Submission Cycle

Request for proposals release:                       November 28, 2018
Informational webinar for applicants:              December 17, 2018 12PM EST
Concept paper due:                                        January 25, 2019
Full proposal (by invitation) due:                     March 29, 2019
Funding period (up to 18 months):                 June 1, 2019 – November 30, 2020

For additional questions, contact

Saturday, July 21, 2018

How old is the term "coconut milk"?

In the New Republic this week, Emily Atkin reviews the renewed Trump administration interest in restricting the word "milk" on labels for products such as "soy milk" and "coconut milk."
“As the [FDA] Commissioner noted, the dictionary definition of the word ‘milk’ does include coming from nuts, and this is not a new concept,” the Plant Based Food Association said in an emailed statement. Indeed, Gottlieb on Tuesday acknowledged that “if you open up a dictionary, it talks about milk coming from a lactating animal or a nut.” This is one of several reasons why non-dairy milk companies reject the idea that they’re misleading consumers.
The argument made me wonder how old is the use of "milk" for products other than cow's milk? Here are a couple entries from Merriam-Webster (which seemed to require sign-in after the first few lookups):
I also looked up 100 Bible verses with the word "milk" in English translation (Hebrew and Greek may be another matter). For the dairy industry, the good news is that most verses did refer to excretions from a lactating mammal. Isaiah provided the most metaphorical use I could find: "You shall suck the milk of nations; you shall nurse at the breast of kings." And the dairy industry may hope that Isaiah was just being aspirational in some of his comments: "He who has no money, come, buy and eat! Come, buy wine and milk without money and without price."

Others have recently pointed out the many names of food products that could get caught up in an overly literal FDA rulebook, if it were applied consistently.
  • Hamburgers (contain no ham ... and aren't from Hamburg either).
  • Hot dogs (contain no dog).
The comment period for the FDA proposal will soon open, and I suspect there will be plenty of submissions on this topic.