Tuesday, August 02, 2016

Are checkoff programs good for nutrition? (#AAEA2016)

Harry Kaiser (Cornell University) and I have enjoyed putting together a lively session later today, discussing the question: Are checkoff programs good for nutrition?

In a friendly debate, Harry will argue "yea" and I will argue "nay" (though in fact we agree on many aspects of these programs). John Crespi from Iowa State will be independent discussant, and Kristin Kiesel of UC Davis will moderate.

The session takes place in the Berkeley room 2:45pm today, Aug 2, at the conference site for the Agricultural and Applied Economics Association (AAEA) here in Boston.

Harry was one of my professors in graduate school at Cornell in the 1990s, and he is a leading economist in the evaluation of generic advertising effects on food consumption. This recent infographic from the beef checkoff program highlights his work (click for full size).


Thursday, July 28, 2016

Food policy in Brazil emphasizes enjoyment of meals and criticizes overprocessed foods

The Food and Environment Reporting Network (FERN) and the Nation have an in-depth article by Bridget Huber this week on national food policy in Brazil, led by Carlos Monteiro and colleagues. Dietary guidelines in Brazil bluntly criticize highly processed foods while simultaneously communicating a healthy enjoyment of food more generally.
Monteiro came to believe that nutritionists’ traditional focus on food groups and nutrients like fat, sugar, and protein had become obsolete. The more meaningful distinction, he started to argue, is in how the food is made. Monteiro is most concerned with the “ultraprocessed products”—those that are manufactured largely from industrial ingredients like palm oil, corn syrup, and artificial flavorings and typically replace foods that are eaten fresh or cooked. Even by traditional nutritionists’ criteria, these sorts of products are considered unhealthy—they tend to be high in fat, sugar, and salt. But Monteiro argues that ultraprocessed foods have other things in common: They encourage overeating, both because they are engineered by food scientists to induce cravings and because manufacturers spend lavishly on marketing.
This blog has previously discussed the way Brazilian dietary guidelines combine nutrition and sustainability issues, in a manner that is not done in the United States. I helped colleagues at George Washington University organize a conference on sustainability issues in dietary guidance in 2014, at which Monteiro was a speaker, and the Brazilian experience has influenced my sense of what might be possible in the United States.

Regarding enjoyment of healthy meals, Huber writes:
Pleasure is an essential part of the new guide, which frames cooking as a time to enjoy with family and friends, not a burden. And instead of sterile prescriptions for the number of grams of fat and fiber to eat each day, the guide focuses on meals. Sample meals were created by looking at the food habits of Brazilians who eat the lowest amount of ultraprocessed foods. One dinner option is a vegetable soup followed by a bowl of acai pulp with cassava flour, as one might eat in the Amazon region. Another plate, more typical of São Paulo, is spaghetti, chicken, and salad. If these seem like ordinary meals, that would be the point, one of the researchers said: They wanted to counteract the idea that a “healthy” diet is one full of unfamiliar and even unpleasant foods.

Tuesday, July 12, 2016

July 2016 update on the #flyingless initiative

The ‪#‎flyingless‬ campaign has been enjoying a flurry of activity since the last update.

1. See Joe Nevins' new interview, posted today on the flyingless.org website, with legal innovator Professor Mary Christina Wood. She contributed to the idea that nature is a "public trust," with dramatic potential implications for addressing climate change. She also is a #flyingless supporter: "Universities will have to re-think their flying practices in a very serious way."

2. Several people connected with our campaign were involved with the remarkable nearly carbon-free conference on Climate Change and the Humanities. Ken Hiltner was the lead organizer and inspiration. Presenters included Peter Singer, Joe Nevins, Peter Kalmus, and myself. On the final day, in addition to the main event in California, we had a fine group of about 12 participants on the Tufts University campus linked by videoconference. Ken Hiltner has created a White Paper / Practical Guide with lessons about how to organize such a conference, and there already is a future conference planned "The World in 2050: Creating/Imagining Just Climate Futures."

3. Please continue to share the flyingless.org website. Important links are available from the "Menu" button at top right of the page. There now are 375 academic signatories for the petition! Twitter: @flyingless.

Saturday, July 02, 2016

Exercise, weight loss, and the food environment

A clear and effective video from Vox explains why exercise is not directly a cure for overweight. The video's message -- rightly -- is that we should pay close attention to food intake and the quality of the food environment.

The video does note that physical activity has strong direct effects on health. Nonetheless, I would have emphasized the benefits of physical activity even more strongly than the video does.

My first reason for giving physical activity yet more credit is a bit geeky. Much of the research literature uses regression models where a weight measure is the outcome variable and physical activity or exercise is the main explanatory variable. To make sure the analysis really reflects the "effect" of exercise, the studies include additional control variables such as food intake and general health. Yet, when we step up our physical activity, we may experience improvements in health, mood, and feelings of self-efficacy. Including explanatory variables for food intake and health status may risk "over-controlling" for other factors. We may eat healthier when our mood is good. We may avoid periods of poor health and inactivity that lead to weight gain. Perhaps stepping up our physical activity deserves some of the credit for improvements in weight that are being picked up by the control variables.

My second reason for giving physical activity yet more credit is more superficial. For some people who seek to lose weight, the ultimate goal is to look better. I have mixed feelings about whether this is good psychology, but it does seem to be common. Stepping up physical activity may affect posture, muscle tone, and confidence, making people look better in ways that the scale may not register.

But the video certainly is right that researchers in recent years have become more careful about not over-promising physical activity as a complete weight loss program on its own.

 

Friday, June 10, 2016

Tufts Research Day 2016: Global food security

The Tufts Research Day is an annual event highlighting inter-disciplinary work on a cross-cutting topic. The 2016 event, on April 25, was titled Research Day on Global Food Security: Crisis and Opportunity. The format was a series of short accessible "lightning talks." My session on metrics and data needs included Tufts faculty members: Colin Orians (biology), Jennifer Coates (nutrition science and policy), and Christine Wanke (public health).

My talk focused on the diverse measurement tools for and policy uses of domestic food insecurity statistics. The conclusion is that there is no fundamental economic or physical barrier preventing us from having much lower rates of food insecurity and hunger in the United States.


Tuesday, May 03, 2016

A most innovative conference on Climate Change: Views from the Humanities

Today is the opening of a remarkable and nearly carbon-free conference organized by Ken Hiltner and colleagues at the University of California, Santa Barbara. The title is Climate Change: Views from the Humanities.

From today until May 31, all of the talks will be available at the conference website. Then, there will be closing events by videoconference on May 31. You may sign up for free to participate in the online question and answer threads.

The keynote talks include noted ethicist Peter Singer, literature professor E. Ann Kaplan, bestselling science fiction novelist Kim Stanley Robinson, and English professor Ashley Dawson. Singer's thesis is fierce: "What the rich nations are doing is indefensible."

The breakout session titled "Flying and Focusing on the Everyday" includes climate scientist Peter Kalmus, geographer Joe Nevins, and myself. Peter's talk is a heartfelt, sincere reflection on the personal aspects of being a climate scientist in our surreal times, drawing heavily on a small convenience sample of his colleagues. Joe's offbeat and irreverent talk considers whether non-flying conferences such as this one are "self-referential self-righteous ascetic bullshit," and his rebuttal to this accusation is 100% convincing. I'll embed my own talk below.

Joe and I come from different disciplines, but have become friends in the past year while founding an international campaign to encourage constructive progress by universities and professional associations to change our culture of flying. Our website is flyingless.org, and our Twitter handle is @flyingless. There are links on the website to a general petition, a list of more than 360 academic supporters, and a Frequently Asked Questions page. If you are an academic who wants to support a well-considered and sensible initiative to encourage universities and professional associations to make an essential cultural change -- while maintaining the good that we seek to do through our work -- then please email us at academicflyingpetition@gmail.com.

I have not been so inspired by a conference for many years. There is something liberating and joyous and rebellious in hitting "pause" on the usual dissonant soundtrack of our jet-setting academic lives, and instead actually starting to live the professional practice that we would live in a sane world that takes climate change seriously.


Saturday, April 30, 2016

Checkoff program supporters seek to shield checkoff boards from freedom-of-information scrutiny

Here is a small example of Washington at its worst.

The Capital Press reports this week that several agriculture commodity organizations have successfully lobbied members of Congress to include a provision in the House agricultural appropriations bill that would protect the federal government's "checkoff" commodity promotion boards from public records disclosure requests under the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA).

Through these programs, the federal government uses its taxation powers to enforce the collection of more than $500 million each year in mandatory assessments on commodity producers, to be spent on campaigns such as "Got Milk" and "Pork. Be Inspired."

Because these semi-public programs are established by Congress and the commodity boards are appointed by the Secretary of Agriculture, they have always been subject to freedom-of-information rules. It stands to reason: farmers and the public deserve to know what's really going on with these well-funded USDA-sponsored programs.

As a reminder, or for new readers, here is the story of how this U.S. Food Policy blog used FOIA to get information about the dubious $60 million sale of the "Other White Meat" slogan from the National Pork Producers Council (NPPC) to the National Pork Board (NPB). We concluded that this sale -- for a slogan that now is nearly worthless and has been replaced by "Be Inspired" -- really was just a way for the checkoff program to funnel money to the NPPC.

Our investigation is exactly the type of public interest research the new bill is designed to prevent. The House appropriations bill language reads as follows:
“The funding used to operate and carry out the activities of the various research and promotion programs is provided by producers and industry stakeholders, and employees on the boards are not federal employees. Therefore, the committee urges USDA to recognize that such boards are not subject to the provisions of 5 U.S.C. Section 552 (the Freedom of Information Act).”
Let people know what you think about this.