Wednesday, September 23, 2015

Eating vegetables-The wide gap between nutritional needs and actual availability in the US

Fruits and vegetables form an important component of a healthy diet and their neglect in preference to other foods like meat and highly processed foods has led to a gigantic health crisis in many western countries. Blaming the food processing industry for marketing their so called unhealthy foods rich in sugar, salt and or fat is not fair because every consumer has a right to choose the food he or she wants with out any compulsion. If we concede this basic reality, why is the consumer invariably neglecting these protective foods and patronizing high calorie, high fat, high salt foods available in the market. There  may be many reasons such as easy availability of packed foods, their low cost, high convenience factor, shelf stability, high taste coefficient etc. But one of the critical factors which emerged recently in a country like the US is a shocking mismatch between production of fruits and vegetables and actual availability nation wide. This means even if the consumer makes a conscious move to increase consumption of fruits and vegetables in his diet,production and an imbalance in supplies force him to  continue the faulty consumption pattern predominated by processed foods.Here is a take on this shocking revelation as reported recently raising many eyebrow recently.

"If you  are looking for proof that Americans' vegetable habits lean towards french fries and ketchup, the U.S. Department of Agriculture has it: Nearly 50 percent of vegetables and legumes available in the U.S. in 2013 were either tomatoes or potatoes. Lettuce came in third as the most available vegetable, according to new data out this week. And while the USDA's own dietary guidelines recommend that adults consume 2.5 to 3 cups of vegetables a day, the agency's researchers foundthat only 1.7 cups per person are available. "The dietary guidelines promote variety," Jeanine Bentley, a social science analyst at the USDA's Economic Research Service, tells The Salt. "But when you look at it, there isn't much variety. Mostly people consume potatoes, tomatoes and lettuce." (The data technically tally domestic production and imports, then subtract exports, but researchers commonly use them as a proxy for consumption.) The federal dietary guidelines do not recommend relying primarily on potatoes, tomatoes and lettuce for most of our vegetable needs. They prescribe a varied mix that includes dark leafy greens, orange and yellow vegetables, and beans—along with those potatoes and tomatoes. And they want us to eat them because they help reduce the risk for heart disease, stroke and some cancers as well as help keep us at a healthy weight. So the vegetables that are available don't really match what we're supposed to be eating. What about what we are actually eating? Some 87 percent of adults failed to meet the vegetable intake recommendations during 2007-2010, according to recent survey datafrom the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The survey found a lot of variation state to state — with 5.5 percent of people in Mississippi getting enough vegetables to 13 percent in California meeting the recommendations.
Most people are likely to be eating tomatoes and potatoes, but as the USDA has noted, we often get them in the not-so-nutritious forms of french fries and pizza. About one-third of potatoes, and two-thirds of tomatoes, were bound for processing — think chips, sweetened pizza sauce and ketchup. All these numbers beg some questions: Do our lopsided habits mean that Americans are merely eating what's on offer, a kind of supply-side theory of diet? Or are all those potatoes and tomatoes crowding out spinach and Brussels sprouts because they're what consumers demand?
"We have a serious disconnect between agriculture and health policy in our country," said Marion Nestle, a leading nutrition researcher and author at New York University. "The USDA does not support 'specialty crops' [like vegetables] to any appreciable extent and the Department of Commerce' figures show that the relative price of fruits and vegetables has gone up much faster than that of fast food or sodas." So while Americans are told to eat fruits and vegetables for their health, the government has meanwhile mostly just subsidized other crops that end up in cheaper, less healthy processed food. "Price has a lot to do with this," she adds. Although this week's USDA report focuses on the limited variety of vegetables available to American shoppers, other agency data suggest that the country simply doesn't offer enough vegetables, period. A 2010study in the American Journal of Preventive Medicine estimated that the U.S. vegetable supply would need to increase by 70 percent — almost entirely in dark leafy greens, orange vegetables and legumes — in order for Americans to meet recommended daily allowances at the time.

With a dietary landscape like that, it's entirely possible that Americans are choosing potatoes and tomatoes, at least for now, says Lindsey Haynes-Maslow, a food systems and health analyst at the Union of Concerned Scientists. "What I see here with lots of potatoes, tomatoes and lettuce … [is] that people are used to these items, and habits are hard to break," says Maslow, adding that relying mostly on the potatoes, tomatoes and lettuce "doesn't cut it," nutrition-wise. Still, she says, "If more Americans got used to eating more fruits and vegetables they might be demanding more of it," she says. "But it's really hard to demand something you've not grown up with." That's why behavioral economists are so keen to figure out how to nudge kids to try and develop a taste for more vegetables — they're researching everything from financial incentives to arranging food differently on the lunch line. And there's some hopeful news in that department: The CDC recently reported that, since the passage of the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act of 2010, there's been a big increase in the number of schools serving two or more vegetables and whole grain-rich foods every day.Most interesting of all, that food isn't just on kids plates: It's getting eaten, too. A Rudd Center for Food Policy and Obesity study of kids' lunch habits following the passage of the bill found that kids ate more fruit, threw away fewer vegetables and ate more of their now-healthier entrees, too."

To add further misery to the citizens in that country, even the available basket of fresh produce is heavily loaded in favor of potatoes, tomatoes and lettuce with greens and other healthy vegetables constituting hardly 10-20%! Over all the production base needs to be expanded by almost 70% if ideal situation is to be attained.Most painful data is that the prices of vegetables and fruits have been going up much faster that that of junk foods providing another justification for low income groups to ignore them for economic reasons. Obviously this is not an acceptable situation for any responsible nation professing to protect its citizens from diseases consequent to shortage of protective foods and their high cost. It is not that the US government is not doing any thing in this front but much more needs to be done to address this vital issue in the coming years.


Monday, September 7, 2015

How can consumers get justice for defective foods in the market? Why not create food Omdurman in each taluka?

Food authorities in India seem to have learned some what from the recent noodle fiasco reflected by their recent decision to involve a multiplicity of organizations, in carrying out support activities across the length and breadth of the country. On the face of it this looks to be sound in concept though at the ground level how it works out remains to be seen. Though one can criticize the safety agency under the Health Ministry for hundreds of reasons or alleged lapses, when it thinks about "out of the box" solutions, that deserves appreciation. The latest decision is such a case where the agency must be applauded. Of course translating the idea into a vibrant and workable system will require the agency to set aside its bureaucratic instincts and carry all the stake holders along with then, in executing a task, by no means, a simple one in a country like India with complex dimensions. Here is a take on this latest "thinking" as reported recently in the media.    

"In an attempt to have stricter vigilance over food products after incidents like Maggi noodles and other similar packaged products which were found hazardous to human health, Food Safety and Standards Authority of India (FSSAI), which functions under Union Health Ministry, has decided to outsource surveys and food testing to various organisations related to food safety. Under a funding scheme,the FSSAI would associate with central and state government agencies, consumer organisations, non-governmental organisations (NGOs) and other institutions, including government universities and colleges working in the area of food safety for undertaking surveys and food quality tests, etc under its Information, Education and Communication (IEC) activities."

If the logic of "out of the box thinking" can have potential to improve the system and ensure better confidence of the consumer on the effectiveness of the vigilance body, another possibility is to  create another mechanism to involve the consumer in tackling adulteration and other complaints pertaining to thousands of products in the market. Currently the citizen has no way to get redressal of his complaints because he has no where to go to narrate his problem. Why not create an Omdurman with some authority in each taluka in the country to receive such complaints, look at them to decide whether they are silly or unreasonable and after filtering them draw up a list of sales outlets who indulge in such practices for further action by the food authorities. It is possible that there could be many cases which may look silly but drawing up a list of retail outlets or food companies having such tendencies to cheat consumers will be a useful guide for further surveillance and action. A person with some background of food basics should qualify to be an Omdurman with some authority so that food inspectors will respect their reports for taking action. They can also be the eyes and rears of the fafety agency in the market place.  


Wednesday, September 2, 2015

Transparency in food labeling-Industry vs consumers

Does "front of the packet" labeling regulations which are in vogue in most countries in the world, in one form or the other, serve any purpose at all? If one goes by the views of the manufacturing industry such restraints are unnecessary because it has the best of the intentions in protecting the well being of the consumers! Probably if one goes by such yardsticks, there is no necessity for any food safety or quality regulating laws, leaving the onus of ensuring these aspects to the "good intentions" of the industry! What a quixotic logic! Whether the industry likes it or not many consumers patronize packed foods because they believe that the regulatory system that keeps a vigil over the doings of the industry is doing a satisfactory job. Look at the recent "noodle mess" in a country like India where consumers putting faith in their regulatory regime, however idiotic it may be, are reducing buying of processed foods in a very significant way as being reported by market watchers due to belief that the product is "toxic" as being claimed by the regulator. If what is happening in a country like the US, considered food processing capital of the world, is any indication food industry seems to be bent on "cheating" the consumers of their right to know what they want to buy and eat through "money muscle" and political clout. It is a disturbing trend and consumers world over must resist such blatant attempts by the industry to manipulate food laws to make them more are opaque. Here is a take on this unfortunate events taking place in the US.  

"By all accounts, Americans want a more transparent food system. Recent polling suggests the majority of Americans favor labeling that tells them exactly how and where their food is produced. And yet, several bills are currently moving through Congress that could make it much harder to learn about the source of our food. These bills would prevent state and local governments from requiring labeling of GMOs; remove country-of-origin labeling (COOL) requirements for most of the meat we buy; and make it harder to know where pesticides are used. The international trade agreements now being negotiated also include provisions that could make such information less available to consumers.  The food industry is spending an enormous amount of money to promote and lobby for this legislation. Food companies may have shelled out over $100 million* in the first six months of 2015 alone, according to federal lobbying disclosure reports. Businesses and trade groups promoting these policies say putting more information on food labels will send the wrong message about food safety, add costs, and pose barriers to trade. And in some cases, they worry it will open U.S. food producers and other companies to punitive import-export taxes. But good food advocates disagree. "This is basic transparency," says Patty Lovera, assistant director of the advocacy group Food & Water Watch. "We're not saying anything's unsafe," says Environmental Working Group(EWG) policy analyst Libby Foley. "We're saying it's about consumer choice." Here are the numbers the food industry doesn't want you to see: So far this year, food and beverage companies have spent $51.6 million on a series of lobbying including efforts efforts to defeat GMO labeling laws such as the Safe and Accurate Food Labeling Act of 2015 (H.R. 1599), which opponents have dubbed the "Deny Americans the Right to Know" or DARK Act. According to a recent analysis by EWG, nearly a quarter of this money—$12.6 million—comes from just six companies: Coca-Cola, General Mills, Kellogg's, Land O'Lakes, and PepsiCo. Other big spenders in these efforts include the Grocery Manufacturers Association ($5.1 million); American Farm Bureau (nearly $1 million); and the National Restaurant Association ($2 million). Many state farm bureaus have also chipped in—among them, Alabama, Florida, Iowa, Kansas, Missouri, Michigan, Minnesota, Nebraska, New York, North Carolina, and Oregon. Big name food producers, including Campbell Soup, Mars, Inc., Mondelez, NestlĂ©, OceanSpray, Safeway, and Unilever, are all spending significant amounts money on this issue as well."

Why is this happening in a country where literacy is almost 100%? May be it is precisely this reason that the industry is apprehensive of the consumers understanding the significance of what is presented on the label and shunning products which he considers not good, safe or environmentally unsatisfactory. An issue like declaring presence of GMO ingredients in a product has been blown out of proportion and American consumer is presently being denied this right because the regulatory authorities are overtly friendly with the powerful industry interests, ignoring the consumer feelings on this issue. Same is true with many safety related issues which invariably are loaded against the hapless consumer. In contrast in a country like India, the food safety agency is overtly antagonistic to the industry as proved by the recent unjustifiable ban on noodles with suspect testing results! What is required is a balance system that is equitable to the consumer as well as the manufacturer. May be it is an Utopian dream with least possibility of becoming a reality.