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Arranging a Marriage to Restore Public Health

July 27, 2010 | Tags: Featured , Food , Health | Post comment

Arranging a Marriage to Restore Public Health


Two articles have appeared in the past week that speak to the complex challenges we face in making food purchases, and both present good examples of why we desperately need definitive truth-telling about food and health and why our food industry needs our help in order to help us. 

In yesterday’s news there was a story about Kraft’s announcement that they will increase the whole grains in more than 100 of their products over the next three years, including in their Ritz, Wheat Thins, and Honey Maid graham crackers, in response to consumer and health advocates’ demands.

They have been working for four years already to “find formulas that allowed the addition of whole grains but did not compromise the taste or quality.” The article also cites ConAgra, Del Monte, and “other large food makers” for their efforts to improve the nutritional profiles of their products, namely by reducing the sodium and sugar content, and/or by adding nutrients back into their refined products.  (Please note, adding nutrients back in doesn’t create reciprocity, doesn’t make for a quid pro quo: the nutrients that naturally occur in a whole food work together synergistically (the sum is ALWAYS greater than the parts) and are generally far more bio-available than those that are chemically derived and added back into refined foods.  In addition, the nutrients commonly added back in represent only a fraction of those that were destroyed or removed during processing.  Further, science is behind nature in identifying all of the nutrients in whole foods; what we do know is that the nutrients yet to be identified far outnumber those we know to study and reference on nutrition facts panels.)

Those of you who know me know that I am deeply and compassionately dedicated to the food industry, as much as I am to the healthcare industry.  I have worked in both fields and, as we all do--whether we recognize it or not---live with a simultaneous and active engagement in both food (by eating) and health (by being alive).  (The more we can recognize the synchronicity of these two engagements, and the higher the quality of the foods we eat, the healthier we can be and the higher the quality of our life experience.)  We won’t do a thing for public health if we can’t help both industries succeed in doing better.

The Full Yield is in the food business, nothing at all compared to Kraft, ConAgra et al---by which I mean, we work on a relatively smaller scale and with a very different kind of product: fresh, highly perishable, with almost entirely whole-food ingredients. There is nothing like one’s own 3-D experience for learning, and so I know firsthand how very difficult it is to commercialize products with 100% whole grains, starting with how to get existing machinery to handle the additional bulk.  It is also immensely difficult to source “clean” ingredients and distribute fresh products in an industry whose infrastructure and distribution channels have been constructed over the past several decades to support almost exclusively highly refined packaged goods that can last for years due to their lack of whole-food ingredients and to the amount of added stabilizers and preservatives.

So sincere congratulations to Kraft and the rest for the gritty, unromantic work they are doing.  They have a very tough path ahead, as in order to REALLY make their products ones that health advocates can support, they will have to leave off tinkering with adding whole grains to what are going to be perpetually health-depleting Ritz and Honey Maid crackers, and move on to producing entirely new and 100% whole grain crackers with low sugar content and high quality fats.  And how can they do this if consumers won’t eat them?  To quote Rhonda Jordan, Kraft’s president of health and wellness, in the article, "We can make products activists or regulators want, but if consumers don't eat them, it doesn't help them or us.” 

How do we help them—and ourselves?   Now to the other article, in the Wall Street Journal on the 20th: The New Nutritionist: Your Grocer.

The WSJ explores some of the scoring systems grocers currently employ to guide those customers asking for clearer information than the nutrition facts panels and front-of-pack labels provide.  In the article, Ric Jurgens, chief executive of Hy-Vee, says, “It's not our responsibility to tell shoppers what to eat, what not to eat or how to eat, [still] we need to provide them with as much information as we can, to help them make good decisions and provide as many options as possible."  True: in the U.S. in 2010, it is their job to make available everything the market has to offer that sells at a profit while it is the role of the healthcare industry and the USDA to tell shoppers what and how to eat. In the case of the healthcare industry, when those shoppers show up in the doctors or nurse practitioners’’ offices with disorders, diseases and the need for guidance in how to safeguard health; in the case of the USDA, in perpetuity because most of those shoppers are U.S. citizens.

(In the Kraft story: “Whole grains are considered a part of a healthy diet, adding necessary fiber and nutrients. They help reduce the risk of heart disease, improve digestion, provide essential nutrients and may help control weight, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture.”  And later in the piece, “Dietary guidelines suggest that adults get at least half of their recommended five to eight ounces of grains per day from whole grain sources.” Were the USDA Guidelines based exclusively on nutrition science and were the USDA exclusively serving public health rather than also serving the economic needs of the food industry and operating under the current construct of the farm bill, the recommendations would be that we get ALL of our grains from whole grains.)

Hy-Vee licenses the scoring system known as Nu-Val, which gives food products a score from 1 to 100.  The higher the score—in theory, anyway—the more nutritious the product.  But, as with all of the other scoring systems, Nu-Val isn’t perfect; it’s too blunt an instrument given the complexities inherent in our modern-day food system and given inadequate modern-day healthcare guidance, both of which are separately and concurrently failing public health.  Quoting from the WSJ:  Kellogg Co.'s Kashi brand in a statement said it tries to provide minimally processed, organic-certified food free of artificial flavors and other additives. "Many of the current nutrient-profiling systems don't take these values into account, which results in an incomplete picture," it said.  A very good point.  We humans have created and are still creating complex and far-reaching disasters because we consciously and unconsciously separate our species’ well-being and endurance from the well-being and endurance of all other species and the planet we share.

One of the WSJ’s examples of how Nu-Val works is to compare scores between General Mills Cascadian Farms french fries and fries sold by McCain Foods.  The former got a score of 76, the latter a score of 26.  In the abstract, the fact that the Cascadian Farms fries are lower in sodium and saturated fat makes them better, but when it comes to health, fried white potatoes shouldn’t make the list at all.  Nu-Val aims to rank every single product; Hannaford’s scoring system, Guiding Stars, was the first on the market and gives one, two, or three scores to products meeting certain nutrition criteria.  Hannaford said sales of starred items have increased, but that only 25% of the stores' products merit even one star.  It bears emphasizing: a whopping 75% of the products sold in Hannaford stores, which are representative of almost all grocery stores in the U.S., have minimal nutritional value. And while Guiding Stars is problematic in some of the same ways as Nu-Val, I do like that the worst products have to sit silent on the shelf: no score, no star, but instead, like the child in time-out for uncooperative behavior, they are banished from mention for their failure to contribute to our health.

Years ago I was invited to speak at the executive conference of a large holding company of many food manufacturers.  I titled my talk, The Food Industry and the Healthcare Industry, An Arranged Marriage in the Making.  More than ever, these two industries need one another, and we the public need them to make vows and a collaborative life on behalf of our health.  We need clear and honest messages about which foods qualify as health-supporting and health-depleting, we need the experience of how good we feel when we eat a health-supporting diet, we need to demonstrate reduced healthcare and life costs when we eat such a diet, and we need to be able to find and to chose to buy health-supporting foods at prices that create profits for suppliers, manufacturers, distributors, and retailers.