public health

What the Hormel Lawsuit Taught us About the "Natural" Food Label

In June 2016, the Animal Legal Defense Fund (ALDF), a non-profit law organization that aims to protect the rights and advance the interests of animals through the legal system, filed a lawsuit alleging that Hormel was misleading consumers through its “Natural Choice” product line of lunch meats and bacon. They filed the suit stating that it was in violation of the DC Consumer Protection Procedures Act. The basis of the lawsuit was that the ALDF alleged that Hormel used the “natural” food label claim although the products contain additives, hormones, antibiotics, and artificial preservatives.

Surveys and research conducted over the last few years have found one thing in common: consumers don’t understand what “natural” means when they see this claim on food labels and packaging. In 2014, a survey conducted by Consumer Reports of over 1,000 people found that 66% think they term “natural” means the food item has no artificial ingredients, pesticides, or genetically modified organisms. In addition to the Consumer Reports survey, research has also shown that 47% of American consumers actively look for natural products and 65% consider natural products as “better.” Well, I hate to be the bearer of bad news, but natural doesn’t mean the product is better, and it doesn’t mean that the product is pesticide or GMO-free.

According to the FDA, the term “natural” means that nothing artificial or synthetic (including all color additives regardless of source) has been included in, or has been added to, a food that would not normally be expected to be in that food. The FDA adds that their definition did not intend to address food production methods (ex: pesticide application), nor does it address food processing or manufacturing methods. And the USDA has their own definition of “natural” for meat and poultry products, which is, “A product containing no artificial ingredient or added color and is only minimally processed. Minimal processing means that the product was processed in a manner that does not fundamentally alter the product. The label must include a statement explaining the meaning of the term natural (such as ’no artificial ingredients; minimally processed’).”

Because this has been such a controversial term, the FDA requested public comments during an open comment period in 2015-2016 to seek input on what “natural” means, or what it should mean for consumers. If you would like to read all of the 7,687 comments submitted, you can do so here. (Warning: there are some comments that contain explicit language). I’m looking forward to seeing if, and how, they will use the comments to update the definition of “natural.”

The Hormel lawsuit, which was dismissed last week by a judge in a Washington, D.C., Superior Court, teaches us that the term “natural” means very little, if anything, compared to other more regulated food labeling claims, such as organic. Consumers should know that natural is one of the most loosely regulated terms. Natural does not mean antibiotic-free; it does not mean free-range; it does not mean organic. I think another misconception among consumers is that “natural” means healthy and it most certainly does not. A bag of chips with the word “natural” across the front of the package is likely no different nutritionally than the bag of chips without the word natural on it. It’s still a bag of chips. So on your next trip to the store keep in mind that a “natural” food label is pretty meaningless as this lawsuit, and all of the ones before it, have shown us.

 

National Public Health Week: Healthy Communities

What is a healthy community? Is it one with bike lanes where you can safely travel to work and home? Is it one with fresh, healthy foods that are accessible to all the citizens? Is it one with safe, affordable housing, or one with clean drinking water? There is no one way to describe a healthy community, and the needs of a community may drive the health priorities that local leaders and citizens focus on. Did you know that the zip code in which we reside is a better predictor of our health than our genetic code? Because of this, public health professionals strive to improve the health of ALL communities so that no matter someone’s zip code, they have the same opportunity to live in a healthy environment as their neighbor who may live 5, 10, or even 20 miles down the road.  

In honor of National Public Health Week and today’s topic of healthy communities, I am highlighting a few communities and one state throughout the United States and the health initiatives and policies they have implemented to improve the health and safety of their community.

Portland, OR

Unfortunately, pedestrian and bicyclist deaths have increased from 12.9% in 2007 to 18.2% in 2016 of all traffic deaths in the United States. Portland, Oregon, is a city that has stepped up to do something about these staggering statistics. A few years ago, city leaders in Portland created a policy that required when a bike lane was recommended by road designers, it must be a protected bike lane which creates a barrier between cars and bicycles, or they must explain why it would not be protected. The policy supports the city’s Vision Zero strategy that aims to support safe alternative methods of transportation. Portland has the highest percentage of bike commuters of any large US city at 7.2% which makes this policy a top priority for the city. No matter how many of our town or city’s commuters travel by bike, a policy like this promotes a healthy (and safe) commute among residents.

Austin, TX

Large cities have been addressing homelessness for decades. The nonprofit organization Mobile Loaves & Fishes built and operates Community First! Village, a community that provides housing in the form of RVs and micro—or “tiny”—homes to those who were homeless. The RVs and micro homes provide a small living space for the residents in which they have their own privacy and can experience the comfort of a stable home. The idea of the community is that it not only puts a roof over someone’s head, but it provides a sense of community, with a large garden, community kitchens, laundry rooms, playgrounds, and much more. The organization wants community members to feel at home and build relationships with others who live in the community. There are currently over 200 housing units and the organization is in the process of adding an additional 310 housing units. Once the additional housing is completed, the organization anticipates that they will be able to provide permanent homes for about 40% of the chronically homeless population in Austin.

Charleston, SC

Lowcountry Street Grocery began in 2015 as a mobile farmers market that services various areas in Charleston. Their mission is to provide healthy, affordable food, along with nutrition education in food deserts where access to fruits and vegetables is limited, and other areas throughout the city. Outfitted as a repurposed bus named “Nell,” the mobile market travels from one stop to another packed full of items like locally sourced fruits, vegetables, eggs, and more. The mobile market is a win-win for local producers and consumers. The schedule for the mobile market changes but it frequents senior centers, mobile home parks, public housing areas, and public outdoor spaces like parks and other high traffic areas. The market accepts SNAP EBT and participates in the “Healthy Bucks” program which allows SNAP recipients who spend at least $5 to purchase fresh fruits and vegetables receive $10 in “healthy bucks” tokens to purchase additional fruits and vegetables.

Massachusetts

The Flint, Michigan water crisis opened our eyes to the very real problem in the United States that not every community has access to clean and safe drinking water. A new report called “Get the Lead Out” is the basis for recently-introduced legislation in the Massachusetts state house addressing lead in drinking water. After Massachusetts received a “D” grade, legislators have proposed new measures to ensure clean drinking water at schools and child care centers, in order to protect children from the harmful effects of lead in drinking water. The proposed legislation would require testing every drinking water outlet each year at both schools and child care centers. This is much more frequent than some states which only require testing if lead has previously been detected or only require testing every 5-6 years. Under this proposed legislation, if a water fountain has tested positive for lead, it would be shut off and only turned on after completing two tests that show the fountain is free from lead. Additionally, water fountains that show elevated lead levels would be replaced with filtered bottle-filling stations. This type of statewide legislation aims to protect children and ensure they are not exposed to lead which is a dangerous neurotoxin.

 

We can always learn from other cities, towns, and communities and adopt public health best practices to make our communities healthier and safer. No matter our own definition of a healthy community, I think the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation sums it up the best—“In our communities, we all should be surrounded by conditions that enable us to live the healthiest life possible, such as access to healthy food, quality schools, stable housing, good jobs with fair pay, and safe places to exercise and play.” As a public health dietitian, I encourage us all to work toward this goal to make our communities healthier and safer.

The FDA is Reforming their Role in Dietary Supplement Oversight.. Finally!

Last week, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) announced that it plans to overhaul regulations for the $50 billion a year dietary supplement industry. The FDA is planning much needed updates to the Dietary Supplement Health and Education Act (DSHEA) which passed in 1994. Alongside this announcement, the FDA sent advisory and warning letters to supplement companies that were selling products with illegal claims or that contained unapproved drugs. Some companies that received the advisory and warning letters were claiming that their products prevented, treated or cured Alzheimer’s disease and a number of other serious diseases and health conditions. According to the press release, “three out of every four American consumers take a dietary supplement on a regular basis”. The overhaul of the 25-year-old Act is music to this public health dietitian’s ears!

If you’re not familiar with the regulations surrounding the giant supplement industry, let me give you a quick introduction. Unlike medications or drugs, supplements are not required to undergo pre-market approval before being sold. The FDA leaves it up to supplement manufacturers to evaluate their own labeling and safeness of their products to make sure they meet regulations. It isn’t until AFTER the supplements have hit the market that the FDA steps in and then can take action against any “adulterated or misbranded dietary supplement”. Essentially the FDA’s current role for supplements, is to remove unsafe supplements from the market but this could occur years after the supplement was sold to an unknown number of consumers and could have caused adverse effects. Seems a little backwards, right?!

The FDA is finally stepping in and Commissioner Scott Gottlieb outlined three priorities as part of his statement. The first priority he outlines is safety and ensuring consumers are protected from harmful products. The second is product integrity and ensuring they contain only the ingredients listed and that they are “manufactured according to quality standards”. The third priority is informed decision-making among consumers and health care professionals.

I look forward to seeing more details unfold around this announcement and I truly hope that this will deter supplement companies from making false or misleading claims. I assume that the FDA’s Office of Dietary Supplement Programs, which was only created three years ago, will be integral throughout this process. In the press release and statement, the FDA has made it clear that they do not want to hinder innovation but they also are very aware of the problems that exist within the supplement industry. In a perfect world (ha!), supplements would go through the same approval as medications or drugs, and would not be allowed to be sold to consumers without some type of approval process but I’m not sure these regulatory changes will go that far. It would also be ideal to address the source of information and ensure that individuals or companies selling supplements are qualified to do so. I hope that the FDA will closely look at multi-level marketing companies selling supplements and products as well. Until we learn more about what this update/overhaul entails, I’ll continue to push back on supplements that claim to help someone lose 10 pounds in 2 days or promote “fat burning” keto coffee.

Self-Care During the Holidays

The holidays- the time of year that is supposed to be full of joy, love, and time spent with friends and family. What we don’t talk or think about when it comes to the holidays are all the ways that we forget about self-care, and the stress that we put ourselves through. The past couple of years I have started really focusing on self-care this time of year and I want to share some of my recommendations for self-care with you.

Stay active this time of year. Exercise is one of the best ways to destress. It doesn’t have to be an hour-long gym workout or a group exercise class, it can be as simple as a 30-minute walk or a bike ride around the neighborhood. You’ll feel refreshed and reenergized!

Attend fun events that you enjoy! How do you decide which events to go to when you have 15 different holiday party invitations?! Pick the ones that you will enjoy most and pass on the ones that you weren’t exactly thrilled about. It’s okay to say no, thanks! This goes for family events too. Surround yourself with people you enjoy spending time with! This advice goes beyond the holidays too.

Spend time planning for 2019. If you’re like me, you like planning and organization. Spend this time of year setting goals for yourself, personally and professionally, for next year. Reflect on what positive things happened and what things you’d like to leave behind in 2018. Doing this ahead of 2019 will allow you to bring in the new year feeling prepared.

Keep healthier foods front and center. You’ve likely noticed that you feel better when you are eating healthier foods, so the holidays are no time to leave your fruits and vegetables behind. Incorporate these into holiday dishes you may be making as well. Remember to stay hydrated too!

Get some sleep! Are you sleeping the recommended amount each night- 8 hours? If not, now is the time to start so that you can ring in 2019 with good sleeping habits. Remove distractions and allow your body to tell you when it’s time to rest. Getting enough sleep benefits your mental, physical, and emotional health!

So take a deep breath and take advantage all of the things this time of year has to offer! Take some time for yourself and practice self-care so that on the evening of December 31st you feel refreshed and happy, and not burnt out and grumpy.

Beyond the Headline: Does Eating Organic Really Reduce Your Cancer Risk?

The latest nutrition headline to catch on with the media is how eating organic can reduce your risk of developing cancer by 25%. So let’s unpack this- does eating organic REALLY reduce your risk of developing cancer?

Years of research between organic and conventional foods have shown that the nutritional value is similar. Purchasing organic is a personal preference just as purchasing conventional is. Often, organic items are not affordable for consumers so headlines like this may unnecessarily make shoppers who purchase conventional feel as though they are increasing their, and their families, cancer risk by not purchasing organic. No consumer should be shamed for purchasing fruits and vegetables for their families whether they are conventional or organic.

So now let’s break down the study. The actual absolute reduction risk reported in the study is a mere 0.6%. The author of the study herself stated that the study does not prove an organic diet causes a reduction in cancer but suggests that an organic based diet COULD contribute to reducing cancer risk. The results also discuss how a higher frequency of consumption of organic foods only led to a decreased risk of developing Non-Hodgkin’s Lymphoma and breast cancer while there was no association detected for other types of cancer. Confounding factors must also be considered with this study like the fact that those who purchase organic tend to be wealthier, eat more fruits and vegetables in general, and consume less processed meat and alcohol- all which play a part in reducing cancer risk.

The issue isn’t with the study, it’s the reporting of it. An important aspect of reporting on this type of research is accurately interpreting scientific research. The American Cancer Society provides guidance on how to see beyond the headline of “scientists find link between X and cancer” or in the case of this study “X can reduce your risk of cancer by (insert insane percentage here)”. Their guidance goes beyond cancer related research and provides great advice on how to interpret any type of nutrition or health study that you might come across in the media- what’s the source, what did the research actually find, who funded the research, what about other evidence and what is the bigger picture, and who are the experts?

As a public health dietitian, I still encourage the consumption of fruits and vegetables. It is a matter of personal preference to purchase organic and consumers should feel empowered to make the best choice for them and their families. While studies, and headlines, like these seem incredibly groundbreaking and hopeful, let’s all be good stewards of nutrition science and read beyond the headline to ensure consumers receive factual information without fear.