Warm Up with Hot Topics: Controversies in Food and Nutrition

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Source: Center for Consumer Freedom

Controversial topics are best left off the holiday table, but we’re not shying away from them here this month.

This holiday season, our writers explore controversies in food and nutrition. And in this day and age, there’s certainly no shortage of them.

Katherine Pett takes us on the historical (and trendy) journey through the mysterious realm of gluten, helping to separate science facts from science fiction. Sheryl Lynn Carvajal describes the weird world of coconut oil, and explores its myriad of uses beyond the kitchen. And Melissa Hudec searches for the all-important Vitamin D as we sink into the dark, winter months.

On the policy front, Matt Moore discusses the outcomes of the midterm elections and what they mean for food and agriculture policy — from the local to the national level. Ally Gallop takes a critical look at the new soda tax in Berkeley, California, the only one of its kind that has passed in the country. Brittany Peats discusses the implications of a new requirement that some 1,700 facilities in the Boston area compost their food waste. And Abby Harper from the Friedman Justice League says that too often the farmers and workers who grow our food are absent from conversations about changing our food system. She’s out to show you that they need a place at the table.

Mimi DelGizzi talks with alumna Lisa D’Agrosa (NUTCOM ‘13), Associate Nutrition Editor for EatingWell Magazine, about how she navigates nutrition and food controversies in her writing career. And, Tanuja Kulkarni whips up a cauliflower soup with grilled cheese dippers that proves that food needn’t be colorful to be nutritious and delicious.

Whether you’re studying for exams or gearing up for the holidays, you can use a little spice in your life. Dig into this month’s issue of hot topics!

Lara and Sheryl

In this issue:

800px-Bread_rollsThe Science Behind Going Gluten-Free

by Katherine Pett

“Gluten-Free” may be a fad diet buzzword, but we shouldn’t dismiss the science of gluten digestion.

 

The Case for Coconut Oil: Elixir of Health and Beauty or Just a Trendy Food Product?

coconutsby Sheryl Lynn Carvajal

Historically, coconut oil has gotten a bad rap for being high in saturated fat.  But recently, there’s been an awakening of the coconut oil craze: claims ranging from improved oral health, to increasing HDL cholesterol, to shinier hair. Find out about the controversy surrounding this trendy plant-based product.

 

Vitamin D: Are We Deficient?

by Melissa Hudec

Vitamin D is a defender against depression and other diseases, but are we deficient?

 

Midterm Elections Result in Senate Agriculture Committee Shakeup, Ongoing GMO Battles

by Matt Moore

195ekzts52eckjpgLast month’s midterm elections saw Republicans take control of the Senate, which could greatly affect future food and agricultural policies. In addition to Congressional elections, voters across the nation decided state- and county-level food and agricultural-related ballot initiatives.

 

Screen Shot 2014-11-28 at 4.41.31 PM copyBerkeley’s Soda Tax: Not as Sweet as Expected?

by Ally Gallop

Berkeley’s soda tax, or Measure D, adds 12 cents to the cost of a can of soda. The overarching intent of taxing sugar-sweetened beverages is to help lower rates of overweight and obesity. But issues with how Measure D is implemented and what exactly it taxes are misleading.

 

Massachusetts’ New Food Waste Disposal Ban

by Brittany Peats

As of October 1, 2014, Massachusetts’ facilities producing over a ton of organic waste weekly are banned from disposing of their organic waste in landfills. At least 1,700 facilities are affected by this regulation including hospitals, schools and supermarkets.

 

Screen Shot 2014-11-30 at 2.20.55 PMJustice at the Table: Bringing the Table to the Fields

by Abby Harper

The Friedman Justice League highlights the need for a more inclusive approach to regional food system planning, shedding light on the workers whose interests are currently underrepresented in the process.  

 

DAgrosa_062013_13124_for_webGMOs and Oxford Commas: An Interview With Friedman Alumna, Lisa D’Agrosa, M.S., R.D.

by Mimi DelGizzi

The Sprout catches up with Friedman alumna Lisa D’Agrosa, Associate Nutrition Editor for EatingWell Magazine, about what it’s like working for a big, fancy publication (and all the stuff you never thought writers had to do).

 

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Recipe: Cauliflower Cannellini Soup with Grilled Cheese Dippers

by Tanuja Kulkarni

Here’s a recipe for a hearty, nutritious soup in all shades of white that proves you don’t always need to “eat the rainbow.”

The Science Behind Going Gluten-Free

by Katherine Pett

“Gluten-Free” may be a fad diet buzzword, but we shouldn’t dismiss the science of gluten digestion.

Gluten1These days, everyone who’s anyone is “gluten-free.” A recent New Yorker article noted that one in three Americans say they are trying to reduce their gluten intake. The fad is polarizing, with just as many people deriding it as there are trying it. Jimmy Kimmel sums it up nicely. “Some people can’t eat gluten for medical reasons, which I get…But a lot of people don’t eat gluten because someone in their yoga class told them not to.”

Diet trends aren’t subject to the laws of science; they can and do spread with no proof of their efficacy. So once a diet becomes a fad, it’s natural for “experts” (doctors, nutritionists, the media, bloggers) to dismiss the health kick as fantasy. Going gluten-free is one such trend.

And, yes, it’s likely that for up to 93% of the population, gluten isn’t causing medical or dietary issues. But unlike forgoing all other foods for cabbage soup or a mix of maple syrup and cayenne pepper (both fads that make no medical sense), there is a reason gluten is problematic. It can’t be fully digested by anyone.

The Atkin’s diet was once so vilified that when the low-carb craze ended, people didn’t realize much of his message was correct: highly processed carbohydrates aren’t healthy, and saturated fat probably isn’t causing heart disease. Years of epidemiological and experimental research have proven a point Atkins initially made in 1972.*

Gluten is another case where the science has been buried by the craze. And once the gluten-free mania ends, as it most surely will, we should remember the scientific research that predated Gwyneth Paltrow’s swearing off gluten.

What makes gluten different?

Gluten is a protein made up of glutenin and gliadin and found in grains. Its signature property is its ability to stretch, allowing bread to rise and giving pastries their light, airy texture. The lower the gluten content, the denser the muffin (as those who have tried gluten-free baking have likely experienced).

Until recently gluten has flown under the radar, only a problem for those with celiac disease, an autoimmune disease in which gluten is the trigger. However, new research on gluten digestion along with the climbing number of celiac diagnoses have given the protein its infamous status.

Dr. Alessio Fasano, Chief of the Division of Pediatric Gastroenterology at Massachusetts General Hospital for Children, and the author of the book Gluten Freedom, has spent his career, somewhat by accident, investigating the effects of gluten in the body. Intent on designing a vaccine for cholera, his team was thwarted when cholera bacteria, though mitigated by the vaccine, still caused diarrhea in subjects. Instead of giving up the project, he looked for the mechanism that allowed cholera to bypass the vaccine. In 1991, his team discovered the cholera protein “zot,” or zonula occludens toxin. Zot somehow managed to create gaps between the cells of the gut and cause the intestine to become permeable.

The human gut, from the mouth to the colon, is generally thought of in biology as being “outside” the body. The entire length of it, from mouth to, well, rear end is a closed tunnel that keeps the food we eat and bacteria that live in our intestines from indiscriminately getting in. By segregating food “outside” the body, the gut breaks it down into particles and mediates what comes in and what stays out. The desired particles are taken in directly by these “guarding” cells and then properly packaged for delivery elsewhere in the body.

For a long time, it was assumed that these guarding cells lining our gut were permanently glued together, like cemented brick walls, and didn’t allow anything to pass through. Zot, however, caused these normally cemented cells to simply open and allow water and electrolytes to seep into the intestines, creating diarrhea, the major symptom of cholera infection. The discovery of zot led to the groundbreaking discovery by Dr. Fasano and his team of zonulin, a natural human protein that, like zot, can “open” the gut and let particles pass directly into the bloodstream.

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From The Scientific American

Oddly enough, zonulin is triggered by gluten consumption. Every time you eat gluten, the cells of your gut lining become more permeable and allow particles to sneak directly into your bloodstream. For most people this isn’t a problem; their bodies easily clear the protein away. But for people with celiac disease or gluten sensitivity, this causes an immune response.

Nobody can efficiently digest gluten. Because of the composition of the protein, it is impossible for the enzymes in our guts to break down the protein into small enough parts to absorb. Those undigested protein strands, called peptides, can be misrecognized as foreign invaders and provoke our immune system.

In fact, gluten has an unusual number of peptides that can cause an immune cell response. Dr. Fasano’s lab, and others, have uncovered up to 50 potentially immune triggering sequences of amino acids, or “motifs,” in gluten alone. Dr. Fasano notes, “It is unusual for any given protein to have so many toxic domains.” 

If one develops celiac disease, the bits of gluten protein that get into the blood cause the body to form antibodies to fight the invading gluten. But the body, for some reason, creates an antibody that fights the cells of his or her gut instead, and the immune system begins to attack a human protein called transglutaminase. This attack, sustained for as long as the person continues eating gluten, causes destruction of the cells that line the gut wall. Eventually, this leads to symptoms like diarrhea and weight loss because the gut’s damaged lining can no longer ingest nutrients from food.

However, it is possible to be affected by gluten even if you don’t have celiac disease. In Gluten Freedom, Fasano points out, “Research conducted recently through the [celiac] center indicates that gluten sensitivity is controlled by the oldest immune reaction, which is our innate immune response.” This means that though people with gluten sensitivity don’t form antibodies, they do experience a strong immune response to the presence of gluten, which can manifest in many symptoms.

Fasano makes the conclusion: “I am now convinced that our immune system mistakenly interprets gluten as a component of a dangerous bacterium or bacteria. When this happens, it unleashes an immune response similar to that triggered by bacteria to rid the body of the attackers.”

So, gluten causes an immune reaction in everyone. Doesn’t that mean no one should eat it? Not quite. Humans come into contact with many potential inflammatory triggers every day. We eat more harmful bacteria than we’d like to imagine. Very rarely, however, do we “lose the fight,” as Dr. Fasano calls it, and suffer from an infection. The same is true with gluten consumption. Though everyone’s body probably treats gluten as if it is a bacterium, the vast majority of people dispose of it efficiently and without excess inflammation. In fact, it seems over 90% of the population have no negative response to gluten.

With “data from our center,” Dr. Fasano explains in the book, “We estimate that 6%, or almost 20 million, are affected by gluten sensitivity.”

While that is an undeniably large number, it leaves most of the population unharmed by gluten. For those people, glutinous bread and pastries can continue to be part of the diet.

If it doesn’t hurt me, why does it matter?

The discovery of zonulin and the effect of gluten on the intestines have implications outside of celiac disease. In fact, the “gut permeability” caused by increased zonulin levels are implicated in other autoimmune diseases including type I diabetes. It has also been less conclusively linked to conditions such as autism and schizophrenia.

This doesn’t mean that gluten causes these diseases, but that gut permeability is a precursor to the development of some autoimmune diseases. With the rate of autoimmune diseases, including celiac disease, growing substantially and for unknown reasons, the interactions between our food and our gut create a crucial point of interest.

800px-Bread_rollsDr. Fasano and other researchers are working on treatments that inhibit zonulin expression, decrease gut permeability and prevent people with celiac from having to forgo all gluten for a lifetime. While some people may laud the idea of a lifetime of no-gluten, for people with celiac, serious symptoms return if they ingest a tiny amount of gluten accidentally. This limits their ability to do things like eat school lunches, go to restaurants, or even cook using the same utensils as the rest of their family. A drug that prevents gluten proteins from getting into the body could prevent major relapses in people with celiac disease.

There is broader potential for this type of treatment if intestinal permeability is definitively shown to be a major contributor to the development of autoimmune diseases. By preventing permeability, drug therapy could prevent someone with familial risk of autoimmune disease from developing the illness.

Dr. Fasano notes that his goals are to help those with celiac and gluten sensitivity live healthier, more fulfilling lives, not to prevent everyone from eating gluten.

“Although I have contributed to the discoveries of some of these inappropriate immune responses elicited by gluten in humans, I do not share the position of the proponents of a ‘gluten free world,’ who often cite my work to support their position.”

Who should go gluten-free?

It’s easier to say who doesn’t need to go gluten-free: 93% of people. However, limiting highly processed white flour, sugary baked goods, and snack-foods is good for everyone.

Dr. Dariush Mozaffarian, Dean of the Friedman School of Nutrition, notes that some benefit can come from a fad.

“Like Dr. Atkins theory of ketogenesis, it remains unclear if gluten per se is harmful in people not documented to be gluten-sensitive,” he said. “Yet, if going gluten free helps in reducing refined grains, starches, and sugars, it could be a helpful approach.”

For most people who swear by a gluten-free diet, they likely feel better because they are eating fewer highly processed foods. Most baked sweets and snacks are out-of-bounds for the gluten-free set, and they turn to healthier alternatives. It’s important, however, not to find gluten-free alternatives that are just as unhealthy as the originals. A cupcake made without gluten is still a cupcake.

Dr. Alice Lichtenstein, D.Sc., Director of the Cardiovascular Nutrition Laboratory at Tufts University, points out the eventuality.

“Over the years I have seen people focus on low-fat diets, low-carb diets, and now gluten free diets,” she said. “Eliminating any category of food will help restrict calories until the market place catches up, and people find a way around the restriction. We saw that with low-fat: the proliferation of foods like fat-free brownies, cookies, and ice cream. We saw that with low-carb with the proliferation of foods like low carb pasta, bagels, and pizza. Now we see the same thing with gluten-free, with a remarkable array of gluten-free products, from breads, cookies and pies, to pizza.”

If you think you have celiac disease or non-celiac gluten sensitivity, consult with your physician to rule these conditions out. If you self-diagnose and start a gluten-free diet, you may be needlessly restricting or, worse, missing out on a different condition altogether. Symptoms characteristic of one autoimmune disease are often characteristic of many, so if you think you may have issues with gluten, it’s important to rule out diseases like hypothyroidism or rheumatoid arthritis first. Also, in order for celiac blood tests to be accurate, you must be consuming gluten at the time of the test. 

If you partake in a gluten-free diet because someone in your yoga class recommended it, and not for medical reasons, more power to you! Just keep in mind that the health benefits (for the 93%) likely come from making healthier choices overall, and not just the lack of bread in your diet.

*Correction:
The downsides of saturated fat are still up for debate: Notably, Dr. Lichtenstein does not agree that saturated fat is not related to heart disease risk.  “There is strong evidence that saturated fat intake is positively related to LDL cholesterol concentrations and LDL cholesterol concentrations are positively related to heart disease risk. When considering diet the devil is in the details.  Substituting polyunsaturated fat for saturated fat is associated with decreased risk of heart disease, substituting carbohydrate for saturated fat has not been associated with risk of heart disease.  The point is with macronutrients one should not consider each in isolation but in terms of an exchange. It would be unfortunate if the message was that it is now okay to eat saturated fat with abandon as some news articles have implied.”

Katherine Pett is a Master’s student at Friedman studying Biochemical and Molecular Nutrition. She can be reached at Katherine.docimo@tufts.edu or on twitter @smarfdoc

The Case for Coconut Oil: Elixir of Health and Beauty or Just a Trendy Food Product?

by Sheryl Lynn Carvajal

Historically, coconut oil has gotten a bad rap for being high in saturated fat.  But recently, there’s been an awakening of the coconut oil craze: claims ranging from improved oral health, to increasing HDL cholesterol, to shinier hair. Find out about the controversy surrounding this trendy plant-based product.

coconutsThe other day at work, I was complaining about my hands being painfully and extremely dry. The chef at the restaurant where I work then poured extra virgin olive oil into my hands, and my coworkers surrounding me told me to rub it in like a moisturizer for my skin.

It seems some people are willing to try any sort of unconventional remedies for aesthetic issues, from placing teabags on their eyes to reduce puffiness and dark circles, to concocting a sugar and honey exfoliant for the face. It also seems as though food products are becoming more versatile, doubling their purpose from our plates to our bodies for cosmetic and health benefits. In fact, as I sit here, my head is wrapped tightly in plastic, which is covering the coconut oil that is soaking the strands of my hair.

Coconut oil has been one of the trendiest of health fads recently, and people are finding more and more uses for this medium-chained fatty acid. Historically, however, coconut oil has been viewed negatively due to its high saturated fat content. Just one tablespoon has 12 grams, and accounts for 60% of the daily value for saturated fat. However, there have been several claims that consuming coconut oil has several health benefits, including improving immune function by killing off viruses and bacteria, aiding in weight loss, and protecting cortical neurons in the brain to prevent Alzheimer’s disease. One of the most prominent claims is that the lauric acid in coconut oil helps raise HDL (a.k.a. “good”) cholesterol levels in the body. With all the mixed messages surrounding this food, you can see why it is so controversial!

According to studies conducted on the effects of consuming coconut oil and the effects of the medium-chained fatty acids it contains, there is some evidence that suggests that coconut oil can resist the common cause of hospital-acquired diarrhea, C. difficile, and consuming coconut oil can lower LDL levels. However, in these studies, the researchers iterate that more research must be done in order to have conclusive evidence of these claims and health benefits, especially since coconut oil is not currently regulated by the FDA.

My attempt at oil pulling lasted about 1 whole minute

My attempt at oil pulling lasted about 1 whole minute

One trend surrounding coconut oil by which several celebrities swear is oil pulling. Oil pulling is a practice in which a person swishes about 1 tablespoon of coconut oil in his or her mouth for about 20 minutes without swallowing, in an attempt to “pull the toxins” out of the body through the mouth. Specifically with coconut oil, there is a claim that it does wonders for oral health, and comes with other benefits such as decongestion, clear skin, and decreased headaches.

From a nutrition standpoint, we know that digestion begins in the mouth, with amylases that break down carbohydrates, well before they reach the stomach. Without any sound and peer-reviewed evidence that coconut oil can pull bacteria and viruses throughout the body from the mouth, oil pulling is controversial with many personal testimonies as to whether or not people think it works.

Another controversial component to oil pulling is the idea of “toxins” in general. What exactly are toxins? Is there a solid definition of what can be considered toxic to the body? This can be very subjective; to one person, a toxin may be a carcinogen, such that you can be exposed to by smoking cigarettes. Others may consider meat a toxin, as they believe it harms to the body.

While there is no conclusive evidence for or against oil pulling, it is important to decide for yourself whether you think it can be beneficial to your personal health.

While we are waiting on the verdict with more research, I think it is safe to say that coconut oil is very versatile in the kitchen. Since it is a solid fat, it can be used in place of butter in recipes, specifically in baking. (It’s great for vegan or Paleo bakers.) It is also ideal for medium-heat sautéing, since it has a higher smoke point than other fats and oils. Additionally, it is a plant-based product, so one can benefit from its phytonutrients.

For now, I’m going to hold off on the oil pulling, and stick to cooking with coconut oil, putting it in my smoothies, and using it as a hair mask and moisturizer.

Sheryl Lynn Carvajal is about two weeks away from having “MS, MPH” after her name. Her hair is extra silky and smooth from the coconut oil mask, just in case you were wondering.

Vitamin D: Are We Deficient?

by Melissa Hudec

vitamin-dVitamin D is a defender against depression and other diseases, but are we deficient?

It’s a beautiful (but chilly!) sunny mid-November day in Boston, and my friend and I decide to soak up the sun and go for a walk in the park. Sometimes having nutrition students for friends leads to interesting conversations. All my friend had to do was ask how much Vitamin D we were getting on our walk, for me to say “well actually…” And the rest is history!

Vitamin D’s Superhero Profile

Who is Vitamin D?

Vitamin D always seems to push its way into the spotlight every year as the days get shorter.

UntitledDiscovered in 1922, Vitamin D had been shown to boost calcium absorption, thereby playing a major role in bone health. It was added to milk in the 1930s to ensure Americans were getting enough their diets, resulting in an almost total elimination of rickets, a serious bone disease, from the U.S. population. Scientists have also found a correlation between adequate D levels and fighting against diseases like breast cancer, multiple sclerosis, and many mood disorders. A study in the Archives of Internal Medicine found that Vitamin D deficiency is also associated with a twofold risk of death overall and from cardiovascular causes in older men and women (the study population averaged age 62). Studies show that D can reduce the impact of colds, and fight seasonal affective disorder (SAD), two issues that always seem to rear their ugly heads in the winter months

Beyond fending off the villains of disease, Vitamin D (which, oddly, is not a vitamin, but a hormone), plays a role in over 300 different metabolic processes in many types of tissues and cells.

Where can D be found?

My walking buddy accurately recognized that we can get Vitamin D from sun exposure. (It is, in fact, the best — and cheapest! — way to get D.) It’s synthesized in the skin after exposure to UVB light, and typically your skin can make enough with as little as 20 minutes of sun exposure.

Unfortunately, this is not as simple as a “walk in the park.” D production doesn’t fare well above the 37th parallel in the U.S. Living in the North greatly reduces your chances of synthesizing this super-vitamin, as does seasonality, having darker skin, covering up when going outside (including sunscreen), the time of day of exposure, and increasing age. So sadly, wintertime in Boston reduces the potential for “free D.”

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To make matter trickier, there are few food sources of Vitamin D. It naturally occurs only in animal sources, such as fatty fish and eggs. Many milk, orange juice, and cereal products have also been fortified with the vitamin, allowing for more adequate consumption in the population.

Another option for many people is Vitamin D supplements. The vitamin is fat soluble, meaning it is absorbed best with a meal containing fat, and is also easily stored in body fat. This is great news because it means you can take larger doses of D less often. In other words, your body can store extra D for a “rainy day.”

The Dietary Reference Intake (DRI) for D is 600 International Units (IU) per day for most people, and 800 IU for people 70 years old or older. Some supplements contain as much as 5,000 IU and are meant to be taken only once a week. Though Vitamin D toxicity is not a large concern, be careful if you’re taking a multivitamin with D and getting plenty from food and the sun.

Are you seeing enough of this superhero in your neighborhood?

More likely than not, many Americans could do with more D. A Nutrition Journal study from 2010 found that almost 42% of Americans were deficient, with the highest rates among Hispanic and African American populations. Studies show those who are overweight or obese also tend to be deficient in D. However, the CDC distributed a press release in 2013 saying that, “overall, the U.S. population has good levels of Vitamin D in the body, but some groups still need to increase their levels of [the] vitamin.”

It’s not always easy to tell if you’re deficient. According to the Vitamin D Council, deficiency symptoms can be very vague, such as tiredness or general aches and pains, and some people who are deficient have no symptoms at all. Severe deficiency symptoms can manifest as weakness and pain in your bones, as well as a resulting difficulty of movement. But again, not everyone will experience these symptoms.

The best way to determine if you’re deficient is to ask your doctor for a 25(OH) D level test. It accurately measures the amount of D in your body via a simple blood test. Normal levels range from 30.0 to 74.0 nanograms per milliliter (ng/ml). It could be worth your while to get this simple test done to see where you stand, even if you don’t think you’re deficient. Remembering that symptoms can be vague, the test could motivate you to make changes to your diet and lifestyle, to ensure that D makes a regular appearance.

Ultimately, this super vitamin is on the rise in the U.S. population, but we still need to prioritize getting proper sunlight, eating fatty fish, and supplementing with D for optimal bone, immune, and mood health.

I bet my friend didn’t think her simple question about Vitamin D would take our walk in the park to a whole different level!

Melissa Hudec is a first year FPAN student who hails from Colorado. She enjoys the outdoors and travelling. And after learning that fatty fish is a great source of D, you can bet she’ll take any opportunity to enjoy good smoked salmon.

Midterm Elections Result in Senate Agriculture Committee Shakeup, Ongoing GMO Battles

by Matt Moore

Last month’s midterm elections saw Republicans take control of the Senate, which could greatly affect future food and agricultural policies. In addition to Congressional elections, voters across the nation decided state- and county-level food and agricultural-related ballot initiatives.

195ekzts52eckjpgIn case you somehow missed it, the biggest news out of the 2014 midterm elections was the Republican Party earning a majority in the Senate. This will potentially have a huge impact on future food and nutrition policy, since the majority of seats on the Senate Committee on Agriculture, Nutrition and Forestry will shift to the Republican Party.

Official Portrait

Current Senate Agriculture Committee Chairwoman Debbie Stabenow (D-Michigan)

Leadership of the Senate Agriculture Committee will change hands from Chairwoman Debbie Stabenow (D-Michigan) to a Republican. While Thad Cochran (R-Mississippi) was reelected and is currently the ranking member of the committee, Pat Roberts (R-Kansas) is expected to take over as chairman after his own reelection victory. Stabenow will likely remain on the committee as new ranking member.

The prospect of Roberts assuming leadership led to speculation that he may reopen the 2014 Farm Bill, which he voted against due to what he perceived to be too much spending on the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP). Though he recently stated that he would not do so, changes could be in store for the next farm bill based on Roberts’ previous legislative action.

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Senator Pat Roberts (R-Kansas)

 

From 1995 to 1997, Roberts served as chairman of the House Committee on Agriculture and spearheaded the 1996 Farm Bill that established fixed government payments to farmers; the 2014 Farm Bill abolished these in favor of crop insurance subsidy programs. In addition to his preference for lower SNAP spending, Roberts’ concerns about federal regulation of crop prices could lead to drastic changes in the next farm bill.

The Senate Ag Committee will also be reshaped in other ways. A major story was the retirement of Tom Harkin (D-Iowa) and the victory of Republican Joni Ernst over Democrat Bruce Braley in the bid to succeed him. While it is unknown if Enrst, who would like to eliminate the Environmental Protection Agency, will petition to replace Harkin on the committee, her fellow Iowan Republican Senator Charles Grassley intends to retain his seat. In addition, current committee member John Walsh (D-Montana) was defeated by Republican Steve Daines.

Two other current Senate Ag Committee members, Saxby Chambliss (R-Georgia) and Mike Johanns (R-Nebraska), also retired from Congress and were both succeeded by Republicans: David Perdue and Ben Sasse, respectively. Mitch McConnell (R-Kentucky) won reelection, while notable Democrats Patrick Leahy (Vermont), Kirsten Gillibrand (New York), and Sherrod Brown (Ohio) are still serving their terms and were not up for reelection.

While the farm bill is the major piece of legislation that could be affected by a Republican majority, some have also voiced concerns that the USDA’s school lunch standards will now be repealed.

Despite the Senate results, SNAP supporters were encouraged by Democrat Gwen Graham’s victory over Steve Southerland (R-Florida), who was running for reelection to the House of Representatives. Southerland gained attention for his efforts to cut SNAP funding.

Beyond Congressional elections, several ballot initiatives across the country had noteworthy effects on food and agriculture policy.

The most hotly contested state legislation centered on labeling genetically modified organisms (GMOs) in food. In fact, the vote on the Oregon Mandatory Labeling of GMOs Initiative (Prop 92) is now headed to a recount after initially being projected to fail.

OR-Right-to-KnowProp 92 was sponsored by Oregon GMO Right to Know and would require “the labeling of raw and packaged foods produced entirely or partially by ‘genetic engineering,’ effective January 2016.” The measure appeared to have been defeated on election night, but issues related to residents signing and confirming their ballots have put the results into question.

Oregon Right to Know has been reinvigorated by the recount announcement. The organization originally helped to raise over $8 million in support of Prop 92, which was also endorsed by Chipotle Mexican Grill. They faced stiff competition from the Vote No on 92 Coalition political action committee (PAC), which raised over $16 million, thanks in large part to donations of over $4 million each from Monsanto and DuPont Pioneer.

Meanwhile in Colorado, voters rejected mandatory GMO labeling by a nearly two-thirds majority. The Right to Know Colorado GMO PAC was only able to raise about $626,000, compared to the No on 105 Coalition, which raised over $12 million, led by major contributions from Monsanto ($7 million), PepsiCo, and Kraft (over $1 million each).

The other GMO-related ballot initiative was at the county level, as residents in Hawaii’s Maui County voted in favor of a measure that established a moratorium on cultivating GMOs. Monsanto, which contributed over $5 million to defeat the measure, and Dow AgroSciences, which donated over $1 million, subsequently filed a lawsuit that led to an injunction that will last until December 5 and allows for additional hearings over the measure. The moratorium is currently slated to go into effect on March 31, 2015.

There were several other, less-publicized state-specific ballot initiatives related to agriculture, food, and the environment:

  • Mississippi voters elected to make the right to hunt and fish a constitutional amendment.
  • Meanwhile, voters in Alabama approved changes to the language of the state’s existing constitutional amendment that allows for hunting and fishing by the public as the “preferred means” of wildlife management while still being subject to legal regulation. Both the Mississippi and Alabama initiatives were strongly supported by the National Rifle Association as pre-emptive action against potential hunting bans.
  • In Washington state, the question of whether marijuana should be defined as an agricultural product was raised. The state legislature had declared that it should not, and thus marijuana growers were not subject to tax exemptions seen by agricultural farmers. An advisory (non-binding) vote was held in which voters elected to maintain the taxes on marijuana, which are now forecasted to bring in more revenue for the state than originally expected.
  • At the state level, Hawaii voters enacted an amendment that allows the legislature to issue special purpose revenue bonds (bonds that enable the state to facilitate loans between borrowers and private investors) to provide financial assistance to farms and agribusiness.
  • California approved $7.545 billion worth of bonds for water system-related projects, including protections for the drinking water supply. Water supply infrastructure improvements are expected to assist farming operations in response to the state’s droughts.
  • Maine voters faced three questions related to food and the environment. First, the state authorized an $8 billion bond to assist in the building of a new Animal and Plant Disease and Insect Control laboratory to be administered by the University of Maine Cooperative Extension. The new lab is expected to provide support in monitoring pests, plant disease, and animal health for farmers and food producers. Similar to California, the state also approved a $10 billion bond for drinking water protection as well as wetland restoration projects. Finally, a $7 billion bond was approved to support marine businesses, including research and development to rejuvenate the state’s fisheries.
  • Like California and Maine, Rhode Island authorized $53 million in bonds that includes funding for drinking water protection, brownfield remediation, and farmland acquisition.

While many of the policies resulting from last month’s elections will not go into effect until 2015, many people will be watching to see how they affect and set precedent for future legislation across the United States.

Matt Moore is a first-year AFE student who was sad that Massachusetts did not vote his way on most of the elections and ballot initiatives. He is still waiting for a member the Green-Rainbow party to be elected governor.

Berkeley’s Soda Tax: Not as Sweet as Expected?

by Ally Gallop

Berkeley’s soda tax, or Measure D, adds 12 cents to the cost of a can of soda. The overarching intent of taxing sugar-sweetened beverages is to help lower rates of overweight and obesity. But issues with how Measure D is implemented and what exactly it taxes are misleading.

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Photo Credit: Ally Gallop

As a registered dietitian, I see food fads come and go. First it was trans fat, then gluten, kale, fancy Himalayan salts, and now sugar. More specifically: sugar-sweetened beverages (SSBs). SSBs are mainly composed of water, sugar, coloring, and flavoring agents. They hold little to no nutritional value besides providing calories and hydration and are an easy public health target, as increases in sugar intake since the mid-1960s have paralleled the rising obesity epidemic.

In the fall of 2013, Mexico passed a bill enacting a 10% tax on SSBs. Compared to the same quarter the previous year, SSB purchases declined by 10%. Fast-forward to November 4, 2014 and Berkeley, CA became the first U.S. city to approve a soda tax with three-quarters of voter support. Also known as Measure D, the tax adds $0.01 per fluid ounce or 12 cents to a can of non-diet soda. Mirroring the anti-tobacco campaign, depleting one’s wallet to improve the public’s health may be an effective strategy.

In the eyes of Big Soda, Berkeley does not represent small town America. Roughly 30 similar bills have failed across the U.S., even in forward-thinking New York City. Despite the $11 million the American Beverage Association invested in trying to defeat Measure D and San Francisco’s similar Proposition E, Roger Salazar, a Big Soda lobbyist, voiced no concern after the election about future bills being passed. He said Berkeley’s 117,000 residents are unique: they’re extremely liberal, tend to act as mobilizers for change, and as of 2011, 19% of Berkeley’s Alameda County adults were obese, compared to the 2014 national average of 34.9%.

Though Measure D sounds like a great idea (especially to students of nutrition and public health), it may prove problematic.

Problem 1: Who Pays the Tax and Where Does it Go?

On the same voting day in San Francisco, a city directly across the bay from Berkeley, the similar Proposition E was rejected. San Francisco’s bill was focused: it proposed that all taxes collected were to go towards anti-obesity programs for low-income, high-risk communities. The targeted outcome meant that at least two-thirds of voter support was required. The bill garnered only 55%. Alternatively, Berkeley’s Measure D only required a majority vote, as the tax was unfocused. The collected taxes would be added to the city’s communal fund. However, written into Measure D was the formation of a panel of experts to provide opinion on how the money should be spent to improve child health moving forward.

Unlike Mexico, where the tax is added at the point-of-sale, Berkeley’s will be applied to the distributor. Individuals trying to quench their thirst will not be directly taxed at the cash register. Proponents state that taxing the distributors makes it easier to collect the money, since the tax will be added to their business license fee. Also, since Measure D’s main target is industry, the logic follows that distributors — being closer in the food system (than consumers) to industry — are an ideal taxing target. Finally, proponents say it’s difficult to collect taxes at the retail level, yet Mexico has seen great success with retail level taxation.

Generally, raising the cost of a product poses a decision: buy the product, buy less of it, or decide against the purchase completely. Yet, in spite of the tax, stores may not even raise soda prices, since the additional cost could be distributed across a store’s entire inventory.

This possibility is problematic for two reasons. First, if the majority of a family’s food is purchased from a store that also sells SSBs, is it fair to increase the cost of groceries to cover the store’s sales? Second, if the retail cost of SSBs doesn’t increase, then there is no targeted disincentive. So, will implementing Measure D really deter the individual?

Problem 2: The Need for Sugar Will Remain

Back in the 1950s when the tobacco industry was at its peak, 44% of Americans smoked. Six decades later, less than one-quarter do. Though there may be some parallels, unlike tobacco everybody consumes sugar. Have you checked the ingredient list of your 100% whole grain bread lately? Malt syrup. What about your pasta sauce? Glucose-fructose. How about those organic, fair trade, whole grain, high fiber, flaxseed crackers? Agave syrup. All of these are code for sugar, and all of these are examples of how widely sugar has infiltrated our foods.

Magnetic resonance images of the brain’s rewards center shows that the response to drugs and sugar are the same. Sugar has also been deemed an addictive substance: consuming sweet foods has similar side effects as addiction, including bingeing, withdrawal, and craving.

It’s not as easy to remove sugar from the food system or one’s diet as it may seem. Simply asking the American population to cut its sugar intake is like asking drug addicts and chronic smokers to quit cold turkey. Yet, sugar is more ubiquitous and tolerated in our obesogenic environment.

During the low-fat craze of the 1980s and 1990s, removing fat from food greatly affected the flavor, smell, and mouth-feel. Industry knew this. So when the fat was removed, sugar was added. Similarly, Measure D does not tax diet sodas, so the market for diet sodas may increase, as sugar could easily be replaced with low- or no-calorie replacements. These options are much lower in calories, so in theory, levels of overweight and obesity should also decrease. Or should they?

Large epidemiological studies have shown that weight gain is correlated with diet soda intake. These results are consistent with both prevalence and longitudinal studies and are seen in both children and adults. For instance, per the Growing Up Today Study, for every can of diet soda consumed, young boys had an increase in body mass index of 0.16 kg/m2. The National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute Growth and Health found that it didn’t matter if adolescent girls drank regular or diet soda: over a 10-year period, they gained more weight compared to girls who omitted both from their diets.

The science suggests that whether the sweetness comes from a calorie source or not, a sweet taste on the tongue stimulates the human appetite. Regardless of the source, it encourages sugar dependence. If we reduce SSB intake, the obvious replacement won’t be water—it will be diet sodas. Will this really make us better off?

So, What Now?

As of right now, the public and proponents of Measure D aren’t seeing eye-to-eye. The public may view Measure D as a means of fighting overweight and obesity. Alternatively, proponents aim to deter distributors from purchasing SSBs and industry from producing them.

In the following years when Measure D’s effectiveness is evaluated, there may be confusion over what outcomes should be measured. Is purchasing power most important? Do rates of overweight and obesity matter most? Or, will tax revenue determine Measure D’s success?

The low-fat craze led the public to replace higher-fat foods with refined carbohydrates. Experts admit being naïve in thinking Americans would replace high-fat items with fruits and vegetables.

In Measure D’s case, we cannot expect people to drink water in the place of soda. Due to sugar’s addictive nature, sweet will likely be replaced with sweet. Public health messages about the downside of sugar replacements and why sugar and sweetness lead to weight gain need to be implemented.

Overall, Popkin and Nielsen (2003) said it best when they wrote that “unsweetening the world’s diet may be the key to reversing the obesity epidemic.”

Ally Gallop, BSc, RD is a Certified Diabetes Educator and is studying towards an MSMPH focusing in nutrition interventions, epidemiology, and health communication. She prefers Americanos to soda any day.

Massachusetts’ New Food Waste Disposal Ban

by Brittany Peats

As of October 1, 2014, Massachusetts’ facilities producing over a ton of organic waste weekly are banned from disposing of their organic waste in landfills. At least 1,700 facilities are affected by this regulation including hospitals, schools and supermarkets.

In October, Massachusetts enacted the most progressive law regarding food waste in the country. Food waste is an increasing problem, as Americans now throw out as much as 40 percent of food produced, and food waste takes up about 25 percent of the space in landfills — more than plastic or paper. Organic waste includes food waste, which is food that is prepared but not eaten, and the waste involved with food production, such as vegetable trimmings and eggshells. This waste typically goes to landfills where it takes up ever diminishing space. Through passing this regulation, Massachusetts aims to divert a large portion of organic waste to facilities that can compost the waste.

The new Commercial Food Waste Disposal Ban went into effect on October 1, 2014 and applies to all businesses that produce over one ton of organic waste per week. It is estimated that at least 1,700 facilities in Massachusetts will be affected by this regulation, including hospitals, schools, supermarkets, restaurants, correctional facilities, conference centers, food manufacturers, and food distributors.

This rule will divert hundreds of tons of food waste that is typically disposed of in landfills. This is important because Massachusetts’ limited landfills are filling up quickly, and it is unlikely that more will be built in the near future. This rule will also help the state reach its goal to reduce its total waste 30 percent by 2020 and 80 percent by 2050.

Sending organic waste to a separate facility may increase disposal costs, so businesses will have an additional incentive to reduce their food waste. Businesses may do that through better forecasting of what and how much food will be required, resulting in fewer leftovers. Businesses can also donate more edible food to food banks, soup kitchens and food rescue organizations.

Finding places to compost this sudden increase in organic waste is a concern. Though some organizations may be able to compost their waste on-site, most organizations will need to transport their waste to a facility. Available facilities in Massachusetts include: 10 farms that accept food scraps for animal feed, 30 composting facilities and 4 anaerobic digesters.

According to a rough estimate from the EPA, the businesses that are part of the ban could produce around 225,000 tons of organic waste per year. State officials say they expect much more than that, up to almost half a million tons per year. The composting facilities in Massachusetts can process roughly 400,000 tons per year. However, many of the composting facilities have been processing, and will continue to process, organic waste from organizations other than those that are part of the ban.

Anaerobic digesters could help process much of the organic waste, as they are able to process large volumes faster than traditional compost facilities. The digesters can process up to 100 tons per day while traditional composting facilities typically process about 15 tons per day. These digesters are particularly good for the environment as the digesters are able to convert the methane gas produced through decomposition into power. By contrast, when organic waste rots in landfills, the methane gas is released into the air.

To help businesses create new anaerobic digesters, the Massachusetts Department of Environmental Protection and other organizations will provide grants, low interest loans and technical assistance to those who plan to open new digesters and other composting facilities.

Existing wastewater treatment plants may pilot using anaerobic digestion for organic waste. For instance, the Deer Island Treatment Plant in Boston Harbor is currently planning a pilot project in one of their digesters. Also, the Stop and Shop distribution center in Freetown, MA plans to open a digester next year.

As a result of this disposal ban and these digesters, it is expected that more renewable power will be generated and more green jobs will be created. And, more compost will be created, which may be used by farmers and landscapers across the state.

Additional haulers to transport organic waste from the businesses to the composting facilities may also be required. Fully diverting all organic waste created by the businesses that are part of the ban may take some time. As of June 2014, roughly half of the businesses subject to the regulation had a plan to comply.

This law does not require households to compost their food scraps. There have been some pilots in other cities to compost household food waste. There are similar, but less stringent, composting mandates in Vermont and Connecticut which require businesses producing over two tons per week and located within 20 miles of a composting facility, to compost. The Massachusetts law has been in the works for about ten years.

The RecyclingWorks in Massachusetts website provides technical assistance for organizations that would like to improve their composting programs, including a hotline and a search function to help locate a hauler or processor of food scraps.

Brittany Peats is a second year FPAN student. She had a vermicomposting bin for several years and now has a Somerville-subsidized black composting bin.

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