Food Label Fear Mongering and its “Toxic” Effects

by Megan Maisano

You know it’s hard out here for a processed food. These days, most consumers want to know what’s in their food and how it’s processed. While that may sound promising towards improving food choices and overall health, it also might be contributing to a culture of fear-mongering and food discrimination – none of which is helpful. This month, Megan Maisano investigates common marketing strategies employed by food manufacturers that result in unnecessary fear, doubt, and confusion in the minds of consumers.

Grocery supermarket

Source: pexels.com

Good news: over half of the U.S. population is paying attention to food labels. Bad news: it might be increasing consumer confusion and contributing to unintended health hysteria.

Whether it’s the latest Netflix documentary demonizing an entire food group, an Instagram feed promoting “clean” eating, or your mother’s cousin Carol pushing her latest detox agenda on Facebook, food fear mongering is real.

The problem is that many claims of “toxic” or “unclean” foods don’t come from health professionals or experts. On top of that, their messages are more accessible by the common consumer than, let’ say, the most recent edition of the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition.

I’ll be the first to admit I read Michael Pollen’s Food Rules a few years ago. I loved it. It was simple, easy to understand, and seemed logical. Nutrition science, however, is not simple, not easy to understand, and evolves with advancing evidence-based research… and nutrition research is hard.

While the desire for food transparency is warranted and can lead to healthier decision-making, the marketing response by the food industry has taken advantage of consumers’ unwarranted fears. Instead of highlighting what’s good in the food we eat, product labels emphasize what’s not in our food, and it’s contributing to the chaos.

I decided to explore the research and science behind common food label claims. The results: practices that range from reasonable transparency to questionable marketing tactics that make us say C’mon Man.

 

Non-GMO Project

The Non-GMO Project, which started in two grocery stores in 2007, now has its iconic butterfly on more than 3,000 brands and 43,000 products. GMOs, or Genetically Modified Organisms, are plants, animals, microorganisms or other organisms whose DNA has been changed via genetic engineering or transgenic technology. The debate concerning GMO safety remains highly controversial. Without going into too much detail, cynics claim that GMOs have not been proven safe and that people have a right to know whether their food contains them. On the other side, folks like the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine claim GMOs have not been proven harmful to humans or the environment.

Regardless of the verdict, the Non-GMO butterfly is landing on more and more products that are naturally GMO-free, such as tomatoes, oranges, and milk. This trend leads to the misconception that tomatoes, oranges, and milk without said-butterfly DO have GMOs and are therefore less safe. This deceptive labeling practice not only hurts the consumer, but also competing brands and their farmers.

The Impact – a 2015 nonpartisan analysis reported that only 37 percent of those surveyed feel that GMOs are safe to eat and 57 percent considered them unsafe. Individuals with a higher education, on the other hand, were more likely to consider GMOs safe. Numerous studies also show that consumer knowledge of GMOs is low and that their information is mainly sourced by the media – insert cousin Carol’s shared Facebook article on GMOs’ toxic effects. The fear continues.

Paleonola grain free granola

Source: thrivemarket.com

Gluten Free and Grain Free

In his book Grain Brain, David Perlmutter writes, “Gluten sensitivity represents one of the greatest and most under-recognized health threats to humanity.” The well-known blogger, Wellness Mama, once wrote an article titled “How Grains are Killing You Slowly” (but has since changed the title). The 2015-2020 Dietary Guidelines for Americans, on the other hand, list grains (specifically whole grains) as a part of a healthy eating pattern. How did this extreme divide on gluten and grains come about?

The 1990’s brought about increased awareness of celiac disease and the effectiveness of treatment following a gluten-free diet. This was a major win and relief for folks with gluten-related disorders. What followed was an increase in the amount of research on gluten and its potential effects on other chronic disorders – and that’s when hysteria hit. Books like Grain Brain and Wheat Belly, both which have been accused of literature cherry-picking and generalization, earned best-selling status and changed the way we looked at a baguette. This frenzy, combined with the highly popular low-carb Atkins Diet, created the recipe for a new villain – gluten and grains.

The food industry responded and so did the media. According to the research firm Packaged Facts, sales in gluten-free products came in around $973 million in 2014 and are expected to exceed $2 billion by 2019 – far exceeding what would be expected in marketing to the less than one percent of individuals with celiac disease. Oh, and these products are about 240% more expensive. Celebrity influences like Gwyneth Paltrow’s book and Miley Cyrus’ tweet, have made the gluten-free diet appear more mainstream, swaying consumer perception and decreasing the seriousness of disorders like celiac disease.

While research on non-celiac gluten sensitivity (affecting about six percent of the U.S.) is still mixed, many studies suggest that gluten may not necessarily be the underlying problem and symptoms may even be psychological. In his book, The Gluten Lie, Alan Levinovitz explains that the significant increase in negative responses to gluten may be due to a phenomenon called Mass Sociogenic Illness – where a physiological response is provoked by mass anxiety and negative expectations.

The Impact – a 2015 Hartman Group survey found that 35% of respondents adopted a gluten-free lifestyle for “no reason,” 26% followed it because they thought it was a “healthier option,” 19% followed it for “digestive health,” and only 8% followed it because of a “gluten sensitivity.”

There is a growing body of research that suggests there is no evidence to support gluten-free diets for the general population and that going gluten-free may even hinder health. Nevertheless, the damage may be done.

 

usda organic label

Source: usda.gov

Going Organic

The USDA Organic label identifies a product that meets federal guidelines for farming and processing. Guidelines include soil quality, animal raising practices, pest and weed control, and the use of additives. As far as organic packaged foods, 95% of the product must be organic and free of artificial preservatives, colors, or flavors.

The organic movement is a step in the right direction towards encouraging more responsible agricultural practices. However, the social impact of the organic label has created unwarranted confusion and fear in “chemically-ridden” conventional foods that aren’t free of synthetic fertilizers or pesticides. The fear is hurting small farmers and our wallets.

A common source of organic fear-mongering comes from the infamous Dirty Dozen published by the Environmental Working Group (EWG). This list identifies twelve non-organic produce items that are reported to have the highest levels of pesticide residue. What the EWG fails to mention, however, is the type of pesticide and its relation to its chronic reference dose (i.e., safe maximum daily dose for life). A Journal of Toxicology study found that none of the dirty dozen products came even close to their reference dose and that EWG’s methodology lacked scientific credibility. While there is nothing wrong with being mindful of pesticide use, people should know organic farmers use pesticides too and their levels are not tested by the USDA.

From a nutrition perspective, research on organic food is mixed. Both organic and conventional practices offer nutritious produce with plenty of phytochemicals; however, organic produce may come out on top as far as levels of phosphorous, antioxidants and less pesticide residue.

From a health-outcome perspective however, there is no direct evidence that organic diets lead to improved health or lower the risk of disease and cancer. Pesticide residue risk, if a concern, can be reduced by simply washing fresh produce.

Lastly, organic farming, labeling, and products are expensive. If price is keeping consumers from purchasing organic produce and fear is keeping them from purchasing conventional produce, we have a problem.

In a country where less than twenty percent of adults eat their daily recommended fruits and vegetables, all produce should be promoted without adding unnecessary confusion or fear.

 

all natural health claim label

Source: topclassactions.com

“Natural” and “Free of …”

According to a 2014 global health survey, 43% of respondents rate “all-natural” foods very important in purchasing decisions. Therefore, having that green and neutral-colored label considerably influences consumer behavior. In regards to meat and poultry, the USDA defines “natural” as containing no artificial ingredients, added colors, and minimal processing. Unfortunately, there is no regulated definition of the use of “natural” for all other products – hence marketing exploitation and further confusion. Below are just a few assumptions that consumers make about natural products regarding what they’re free of, and whether or not that really matters:

Free of Preservatives: Preservatives in food help delay spoilage, improve quality, and decrease food waste. They decrease the risk of food-borne illness, lower oxidation in the body, and keep us from worrying about things like getting tuberculosis from our milk. Consumers often fear ingredients that have chemical-sounding names; however, lest we forget, we are made of chemical compounds!  Many preservatives are harmless and even nutritious like ascorbic acid (vitamin C), alpha-tocopherol (vitamin E), calcium propionate, niacin (vitamin B3), lysozyme, and tertiary butylhydroquinone (TBHQ). Some other preservatives, however, may have questionable effects on health when consumed in high doses, so more research is needed on their safety.

No Antibiotics Ever: This term’s tricky. For a long time, many farmers used antibiotics not just for the treatment of ill animals but also to facilitate growth. The FDA has since banned the use for growth and animal antibiotics sales have fallen considerably. However, sick animals do need treatment and not using antibiotics to treat them would be unethical and pose a risk to food safety. So, here’s the deal to understanding the label: Farm A has a sick chicken which they treat with antibiotics. The chicken is therefore removed from the antibiotic-free group for sale (and who knows what that means). Farm B has a sick chicken which they treat with antibiotics. The chicken then goes through a withdrawal period and is tested before it can be used for processing, often with the oversight of a licensed veterinarian. Only Farm A can have the “No Antibiotics Ever” label. Is Farm A healthier than Farm B? Probably not.

No Hormones Added: Fun fact: adding hormones or steroids to poultry and pork is illegal in the U.S. Just like tomatoes with a Non-GMO label, chicken and pork products with a “No Hormones Added” label are simply playing into consumer fears.

Free of High Fructose Corn Syrup (HFCS):  Great! But keep in mind that sugar, molasses, agave nectar, cane juice, and honey are “natural” sources of added sugars too. HFCS is essentially a mix of fructose, glucose, and water. It varies from having either 42% fructose (often found in processed food) to 55% fructose (often found in soft drinks) – not too different from sugar with a 50:50 mix or your $10 organic agave nectar.

 

chicken breast no antibiotics non gmo organic

Source: target.com

Conclusion: Fear Mongering Isn’t Helping

When it comes to promoting healthy eating behaviors, fear tactics aren’t helping and may even be harmful. Unlike tobacco or drug use, two issues where fear campaigns were successfully used to impact behavior, we need to eat to live. Instilling unnecessary anxiety about foods that are not Non-GMO, gluten-free, certified organic, or “free from” whatever may keep us from consuming a nutritious, well-balanced diet.

Unfortunately, the U.S. hasn’t learned its lesson from the anti-fat and anti-cholesterol era because we continue to look for something simple to blame for health problems, and the media and food industry continues to take advantage of that desire. Moderation just isn’t sexy.

Whether it’s the latest one-dimensional diet, a food blogger’s recent witch hunt, or a misleading food label in an earthy color tone, fear-induced messages are not helping. They are harming consumer knowledge, self-efficacy, health, and ultimate trust in food industry and nutrition science. It’s time to stop the food fear mongering and encourage the good in foods that will lead to our “natural” wellbeing.

 

Megan Maisano is a second year NICBC student and an RD-to-be. She has a Wheat Belly and a Grain Brain, but is doing okay. She’s got no beef with Non-GMO, Gluten-free, or Organic products, only their use in scare-tactics that aren’t based in science.

Policy Corner: The $2.4 Billion Cost of Hunger

by Emily Cavanaugh

In February of this year, the Greater Boston Food Bank released a report on the hidden costs of hunger and food insecurity in Massachusetts. For the Policy Corner this month, Emily Cavanaugh reports on what the report’s findings mean for public health policy in the Commonwealth.

The Greater Boston Food Bank recently partnered with Children’s Health Watch on a report, released this February, documenting the hidden costs of food insecurity in the state of Massachusetts.  This first-of-its-kind study was commissioned as part of the mission of Children’s Health Watch to “inform public policies and practices that give all children equal opportunities for healthy, successful lives”. Children’s Health Watch is headquartered at Boston Medical Center, where the health effects of hunger can be seen firsthand.

The report states that these health effects cost the commonwealth a whopping $2.4 billion in 2016. High cholesterol, anxiety and depression, asthma, and diabetes were just a few of the conditions the study related to hunger. Indirect costs incurred by anxiety, behavioral problems, inattention or ADHD by food insecure children were also captured. Lastly, the study sought to account for work absence and lack of productivity caused by the related health conditions.

Costs of various diseases and poor health outcomes caused by hunger, as estimated by the study. (Image: MACostOfHunger.org)

Costs of various diseases and poor health outcomes caused by hunger, as estimated by the study. (Image: MACostOfHunger.org)

Though it’s difficult to prove certain causality by these methods, the study concluded that “as with the relationships between smoking tobacco and lung, throat and mouth cancers, the evidence of relationships between food insecurity and these health outcomes is so strong … that we believe we are justified in acting on strong evidence even if it is not absolutely conclusive and unassailable.” The combination of poverty and food insecurity contribute to poor health and educational issues and create a feedback loop, reinforcing the poverty that is the root cause of hunger.  While this study didn’t address racial disparities in food insecurity, a 2017 pamphlet from bread.org states that people of color in Massachusetts are 3 times more likely to face poverty and hunger, and in 2016, Children’s Health Watch reported significantly higher rates of hunger among immigrant families.  Intervening to address food insecurity can help to breaking that poverty-health-education feedback loop, enabling wellness and opportunity for all the Commonwealth’s residents.

Having established that hunger is a public health issue, how do we address it? The study makes recommendations in 3 main areas – healthcare practices, policy at the federal and local level, and academia. In the healthcare industry, we can consistently screen for hunger and intervene as necessary, pointing patients and parents to resources like SNAP and food banks.  GBFB has partnered with nine medical providers in the state, including three in Boston to implement the Hunger Vital Sign two-question that screening tool for food insecurity. As healthcare providers see the evidence of hunger during doctor’s visits, they are uniquely positioned to connect families in need with the available resources. Therefore partnerships between doctors and hospitals, foods banks, and other assistance programs could be very effective.

On a national policy level, the upcoming Farm Bill could contain changes to nutrition assistance programs, and the study recommends that lawmakers be pressured not to reduce SNAP funding. Reduction in funding could lead to reduction in the number of families served or amount of food dollars granted to each family, further reducing support that is already sometimes inadequate.

At the state level, lawmakers can mandate “breakfast after the bell” programs, especially in low-income communities. Several communities, from Boston to Worcester to Chicopee have implemented breakfast after the bell and have seen increases in attendance, and decreases in tardiness and nurse visits. The state could also increase funding for WIC and the Massachusetts Emergency Food Assistance Program. The CDC has acknowledged the link between nutrition, health, and academic performance, meaning hunger can limit the academic potential of children and should be addressed to provide more equality in our school systems. Access should be improved to state and federal assistance programs, first by creating a common application for MassHealth, SNAP, and WIC benefits. Filling out one set of forms to access multiple benefits would increase participation, particularly for those who are on the edge of qualifying for assistance.

We can all contact our representatives at the state and local level to bring these causes to their attention. You can find your legislator here, or contact legislators serving on specific committees such as public health or education. Contact your city or town officials to inquire about school food programs. Call a SNAP outreach partner organization and help residents enroll in SNAP programs.

Lastly, in academia, we can undertake research that supports these policy recommendations and sheds light on the causes and effects of hunger in our community.  Research regarding vulnerable populations can help target nutrition assistance where it is needed most. Though interventional studies are challenging to carry out, they provide strong evidence for effective solutions. A stronger causal link between hunger and health outcomes would strengthen the argument that food insecurity is a public health issue that needs to be prioritized in policy making.  Lastly, a review of costs to implement some of the recommended programs, compared to the annual $2.4 billion cost of adverse outcomes could make a compelling, black and white case for addressing hunger as a public health issue.

Emily Cavanaugh is a professional in the medical diagnostics industry with a Bachelor’s degree in biology and a persistent passion for nutrition.  After years of reading Marion Nestle books and following FFPAC on twitter, she decided to get involved by writing a Policy Corner article. She is also an enthusiastic home cook, bread baker, and gym goer.

Nebraska to New York

by Molly Knudsen

Molly shares her journey of how she went from a kid watching the Today Show before school to ending up on the set in NBC Studios at Rockefeller Plaza ten years later.  Read on to see how TV, nutrition, and the Friedman School all played an integral role in a career-shaping experience for Molly.

Molly standing in front of one of Joy's healthy food swaps to be aired on the segment. Hoda is behind all the cameras in the background! (Photo provided by author.)

Molly standing in front of one of Joy’s healthy food swaps to be aired on the segment. Hoda is behind all the cameras in the background! (Photo provided by author.)

Every morning before school, I would enjoy breakfast at the kitchen counter while my mom watched the Today Show in the adjoining room.  In our neck of the woods, Omaha, Nebraska to be precise, this was my household’s primary outlet into what was happing in our country and the rest of the world.  The background noise from the television did little to perk my interest away from my hearty breakfast of scrambled eggs.  However, one regular guest on the show always seemed to catch my attention ­­­­— Joy Bauer.

Joy is the health and nutrition expert on the Today Show, and is the author of 12 New York Times best sellers.  Joy was one of my first introductions to the field of nutrition and dietetics.  I specifically remember her segments comparing the nutrient and calorie content of different meal choices at fast food restaurants.  I recall how 12-year-old Molly was astonished by how a salad could contain more calories than a hamburger at certain fast food outlets.  Joy was so knowledgeable, engaging, and realistic on the nutrition segments, and watching her on the Today Show with my mom helped light the path for my future career.

Fast-forward about ten years from Omaha, and I am now a newly credentialed dietitian who recently moved to Boston to begin graduate work at the Friedman School.  After the first two days of fall orientation and before I moved into an apartment, I received the first Friedman Weekly Digest email while I was sitting in a hotel room with my mom.  While scrolling through the list of opportunities available to students, I stopped and gasped.  Joy Bauer Ventures had a part-time internship position available.  I was sure as heck not going to let this experience pass me by.  After a two-week application process, I somehow managed to secure the position.  Not only was this a great introduction to nutrition communications, but I was also about to have the opportunity to work for the woman who introduced me to this field.  I was on cloud nine, as was my mom.

Joy Bauer Ventures takes several rounds of interns each year and often looks to the Friedman School to find qualified applications for her internship positions.

We love our interns and appreciate their hard work! Every day is an adventure in my world, and our crackerjack interns (aka future health leaders!) are thrown into all sorts of exciting projects for TV, radio, publications and digital. It’s amazing to see the new skills they acquire in such a short amount of time!”

-Joy Bauer

Without that connection between Joy Bauer Ventures and the Friedman School, I would have never learned about this internship opportunity.

Joy has a team of two full-time employees, who were my main contacts for the internship: Rebecca, a Friedman Nutrition Communications alumna, and Donna, an editor.  The internship was remote, so I was primarily in touch with them via e-mail or an occasional phone call.  Since Joy Bauer Ventures is such a small operation, I was really able to get my hands dirty with a variety of tasks!

Joy has very active Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter accounts, and she publishes content almost daily, if not more, on each platform.  So, each week, I submitted suggestions for potential social media posts. This required not only keeping constant tabs on all three outlets, but also reviewing her past posts to understand who her audience was and what voice and tone with which she used to communicate.  Fun fact: I actually created a Twitter account during this internship for the sole purpose of following Joy!  It was always exciting to see a post suggestion end up on one of her pages and be noticed by thousands, or more, of her followers.

Joy’s motto is “Life is hard, food should be easy.”  In order to make that motto actionable for her audience, brainstorming and drafting healthy recipes was almost a weekly part of this internship.  Creativity was key for this! Patience was also important, especially in one instance when the recipe I was testing called for a guava, and I had to go to four different grocery stores to find one. Pro tip: avoid seeking guavas in Boston in November.

Before Thanksgiving, Joy Bauer and personal trainer, Will Weber, teamed up to create a six-week Trim Before Turkey challenge for three women on the Today Show.  Joy created a meal plan outline for the women to follow, and I was able to work individually with one of them on her weight loss journey.  Weight loss is no easy task, but the ladies were successful in achieving their lifestyle change goals, while becoming more confident in themselves and their capabilities.  All three ladies had amazing transformations.  Click here to learn more about Trim Before Turkey.

Molly and Joy in front of the crowd at Rockefeller Plaza after the filming of Joy's segment. (Photo provided by author.)

Molly and Joy in front of the crowd at Rockefeller Plaza after the filming of Joy’s segment. (Photo provided by author.)

Remote internships can be a great experience, especially when confined to one city during the school year (I’m talking about you, Boston).  But, there was one day when I was able to actually be on location.  In January, Joy and her team were kind enough to invite and host me for a filming of a segment for the Today Show.  Of course, I jumped at this opportunity!  I was able to meet Joy and Rebecca at NBC Studios in Rockefeller Plaza, see her prepare for the segment, and then watch the segment live in person.  Being present in the studio was a surreal experience with the lights, the cameras, and the crowd outside!  Being able to meet the people I worked with all semester was such a treat, and seeing Joy do her thing live in New York City was an experience I will forever be grateful for.   This was a day that the 12-year-old Molly could never have imagined happening.  But now, I have the experience, memories and photos to prove it!

Molly Knudsen, RDN is a first year Nutrition Interventions Communication and Behavior Change student.  She is an avid viewer of Today Show viewer, who tried not to fan-girl too hard when she saw Hoda, a co-anchor of the show, on set.  She was only slightly overwhelmed when visiting NYC, but enjoyed the 20 hours she was able to spend there.

Write, Speak, Tell Stories: The Sprout Media Panel Recap

by Hannah Meier

It was August 6th, 2017—a month before the start of the semester and Kathleen was showing me the ropes of editorial duties over local beer at Area-4, a restaurant just down the road from Jaharis. We went over timelines, passwords and account names, and shared our hopes and dreams for the coming year. One thing we both agreed on: We wanted to make a bigger impact within the Friedman community. Our big idea? Bring The Sprout offline.

Almost 8 months later, last Wednesday, our dreams came to life.

The Sackler classroom we booked for the event was almost fully packed. A show of hands at the end of the presentation reflected a fairly even split of AFE, FPAN and NICBC students. At the front of the room sat five professionals with diverse media backgrounds and extensive resumes; I sat next to them and moderated the hour-long discussion. There was no lack of participation and I was just as enthralled by the rich conversation our panelists generated as I was by the questions our audience posed.

Steve Holt Boston Writer

Steve Holt

The panelists’ careers and experience ranged from all forms of media. Journalist Steve Holt has reported on everything from food to urbanism to crime for print and digital publications like Civil Eats, The Boston Globe, Boston Magazine, Edible Boston, and TakePart. He uses his work to ask hard questions and tell the stories of the people behind the country’s most inspiring meals and movements.

Caity Moseman-Wadler Heritage Radio Network

Caity Moseman-Wadler

In her role as Executive Director of Heritage Radio Network—a nonprofit food radio network based in Brooklyn—Caity Moseman Wadler oversees the production of 35 weekly shows, interactive events, and special programs covering topics from food policy and agriculture, to the restaurant, food and drink scenes, to the human stories that often go unnoticed in our vast food system.

Liz Weiss Headshot

Liz Weiss MS, RDN

Two of our panelists were dietitians. Liz Weiss has a specialty in family nutrition and is the voice behind the family food podcast and blog, Liz’s Healthy Table. She began her career at CNN as a producer and reporter and hosted over 50 Meal Makeover cooking videos. She’s also covered food and nutrition stories for PBS HealthWeek and has written several cookbooks, including a coloring cookbook for kids.

Stephanie Ferrari

Stephanie Ferarri, MS, RDN

Stephanie Ferrari, a dietitian and owner of Boston-based public relations firm, FRESH Communications, co-hosts a morning news segment called What’s FRESH Around Town on Boston 25 News. She is a contributing author to the Huffington Post, and has been featured in numerous publications like The Boston Globe, Cooking Light, INSIDER, Elite Daily, POPSUGAR, and Good Housekeeping, and has held marketing and communication roles for the New England Dairy Council, The Castle Group, and the Massachusetts Dietetic Association.

Louisa Kasdon The Food Voice

Louisa Kasdon

Finally, Louisa Kasdon brought over 20 years of journalism experience and has convened over 200 food events around New England, including cooking events, panels, teach-ins, conferences, workshops, and advocacy initiatives. She founded and organizes the Let’s Talk About Food Festival, and her most recent project has been to establish a new multi-media platform encompassing print, events, digital, and social media outreach called The Food Voice, New England’s new hub for all things food.

Looking at their extensive resumes, it’s no surprise that the event was a hit. Our panelists brought a true wealth of experience and shared many stories of growing into the field of food and nutrition.

Friedman Media Panel March Event

Conversation Flowing for a Captivated Audience (Photo: Kathleen Nay)

As I moderated, it was difficult to keep track of time as the hour of conversation flowed quickly. Questions posed thoughtful responses that were both applicable and provocative.

Our panelists spoke to concerns about reaching broader audiences than those of publications like Civil Eats, whose readers are more insular than the ones who may need to hear our messages most. In short, the panelists reiterated that in order to reach an audience outside of our bubble, we tell the stories of those on the outside. We need to think about who is reading or listening to what we are saying, and what their very real, often practical, needs are. Liz Weiss bluntly acknowledged that “people don’t like to read about food policy.” She and other panelists agreed that storytelling and emotion help pull readers in to your message and listen. Once an audience feels emotional about a topic, or feels threatened by the loss of something personal, they will pay attention. As communicators, those are the stories we need to practice telling.

When asked about personal biases and balancing professional background and personal opinion with the needs or desires of a client, Stephanie Ferrari was quick to point out that there is never a reason to short-change your message or betray the science in favor of business. Protect your credentials and trust your understanding of the science. Companies and clients will be grateful for your insight and expertise. Louisa Kasdon agreed, “you can’t write about something that isn’t true—it won’t get you far and will come back to bite you in the end.” Stay true to your values and remember that you always have the option to say no if working with a particular client truly does not feel right.

Friedman school of nutrition communications media panel

The Friedman Sprout team and our lovely panelists. From left: Hannah Meier, Louisa Kasdon, Caity Moseman-Wadler, Stephanie Ferrari, Steve Holt, Liz Weiss, Kathleen Nay, Erin Child (Photo: Kathleen Nay)

Finally, all of the panelists agreed that to get far in the world of communication, get started today. Steve Holt encouraged us that no time is too early, and the playing field for writers is more level than most expect in terms of pitching ideas to editors. On the other hand, Louisa pointed out that she would like to see a few work examples before trusting someone with an assignment or editorial content. Liz Weiss encouraged all of us to stay focused and follow our dreams. Caity Moseman Wadler advocated for standing up for your worth as an intern and budding professional, and for building a network of experiences with individuals and publications that align with your values and your goals.

Heed expert advice: Write for The Sprout. Investigate the stories you’re curious about now. You never know where it could take you.

Hannah Meier RD, LDN is in her final semester of the Nutrition Communication and Behavior Change program and serves as the current co-editor of The Sprout alongside Kathleen Nay. She was thoroughly jazzed to coordinate the first-ever panel of professionals event with immense support from the other editors, panelists, and the team at Friedman. In May, she is excited to take on a full-time role with the start-up food company 88 Acres as their Nutrition and Communications Lead and is grateful for the opportunity to gain immense writing and editorial experience with The Sprout during her time at Friedman.

You’ve Got to Love Your Tree

by Hannah Meier

“Love Your Tree.” It’s a directive inspired by Eve Ensler, the writer and activist behind the one-woman play, The Good Body (you may also know her as the playwright for the wildly popular Vagina Monologues). “Love Your Tree” is also the foundation of a creative arts eating disorder prevention campaign that started at the The Center for Eating Disorders at Sheppard Pratt in Maryland in 2006 and has since expanded nationally. Today, organizations across the country, including Massachusetts, are invited to participate in the 2018 campaign and submit artwork that illustrates body diversity, acceptance and positivity.

“Eve, look at that tree? Do you see that tree? Now, look at that tree (pointing to another one). Do you like that tree? Do you hate that tree ’cause it doesn’t look like that tree? Do you say that tree isn’t pretty ‘cause it doesn’t look like that tree? We’re all trees. You’re a tree. I’m a tree. You’ve got to love your body, Eve. You’ve got to love your tree.” (Excerpt from The Good Body, 2004 by Eve Ensler). 

In the Baltimore-based Center for Eating Disorders at Sheppard Pratt, art therapy is a main component of recovery—helping patients approach body image struggles in a non-threatening way. Friedman alum, Christine Diven (Nutrition Communication, ‘12), assists with communications for the center where Julia Anderson, a Certified Eating Disorder Art Therapist created the Love Your Tree (LYT) Campaign in 2006. LYT is inspired by the metaphor in Ensler’s play, and is designed to cultivate an appreciation for the natural diversity of body sizes and help young people fight against society’s narrow and marginalizing standard of beauty and worth.

Love Your Tree Like a tree…my body is similar to no other. Lily D. Sudbrook Magnet Middle School 2016

As someone who personally struggled with an eating disorder that stemmed from dysmorphic body image throughout my childhood and adolescence, I emphatically understand how important it is to build an acceptance and appreciation of all bodies—especially in childhood. With increased attention drawn to childhood obesity and even weight loss in youth, establishing a sense of body trust and acceptance in childhood is of the utmost importance for educators today to prevent the development of eating disorders for these kids down the road.

What We Know About Eating Disorders

Unfortunately, research on eating disorders is anything but well-funded. Current statistics estimate that between 0.5 to 3.7 percent of American women suffer from anorexia nervosa at some point in their lifetime, and about 1 percent of female adolescents currently have anorexia[i]. Bulimia nervosa affects an estimated 1.1 to 4.2 percent of women in their lifetime. Binge-Eating Disorder, one of the most recently codified eating disorders in the diagnostic manual for psychiatric illnesses, is the most common, affecting 3.5 percent % of women and 2 percent of men in the United States, according to the latest statistics[ii].

Clearly, these numbers are conservative, and they do not account for the millions of individuals who may suffer from disordered eating but do not meet one or more of the required criteria for a clinical diagnosis. These numbers also assume that those with eating disorders seek treatment, which is sadly not always the case. Also worth noting, most of our understanding of eating disorders comes from research conducted on women, since anorexia and bulimia are traditionally perceived to affect women more than men; however, men are no less likely to suffer from eating disorders[iii].

Dieting and disordered eating often come back to poor body image or a desire to alter one’s body to better fit societal norms, putting thinness above real physical health. Results from a  2008 Canadian study found that 40% of Canadian girls in tenth grade and 37% of girls in ninth grade thought of themselves as “too fat,” and 19% of those with a normal BMI considered themselves to be overweight. Twelve percent of those with a normal BMI admitted to trying to lose weight[iv].

All Different, All One
Like a tree, my body…is unique and part of a whole. Melissa B. Bel Air High School 2017

Body dissatisfaction has a lot of other negative effects on kids and teens beyond increasing the risk for developing eating disorders. Some studies have shown that when students feel badly about their bodies, their GPAs are likely to be lower than students who don’t feel badly about themselves. And while we might think these types of issues arise in adolescence, body dissatisfaction and body anxiety may begin as young as second grade across varying racial and ethnic backgrounds, in both boys and girls.

How does Love Your Tree fight back?

According to current program director Brianna Garrold, the LYT campaign is currently in its 12th year. It was originally structured for middle and high school students in the Baltimore and surrounding area, but now reaches outside the state with organizations in New Jersey, Massachusetts, and Connecticut. Schools and organizations that host programs invite students to submit artwork representing their response to the Tree metaphor.

The campaign is even expanding overseas and across age groups. “In 2014, an organization in Australia picked up the message and contacted the creator of the program for more information about LYT and tips for hosting their own show and awards ceremony,” Garrold explained. “Over the years, Love Your Tree has expanded to include college students, and as of 2016, kindergarten and elementary-aged students. LYT has also started branching out beyond school-based workshops and into community organizations as well.”

Just Beginning “Like a Tree…I am full of so much potential.” Katherine H (Dulaney Middle School) 2015 

For school participants and eating disorder patients alike, the metaphor of a tree helps to explore healthy body image and self-image in a non-threatening way. According to Garrold, art therapy often feels “easier and safer” for participants than other approaches.

What are the common risk factors we can focus on to prevent eating disorders?

Garrold points to the biopsychosocial model of development—an understanding that biological, psychological and social factors all can play key roles in determining whether someone will develop an eating disorder.

“Unfortunately, we live in a society that is comparative, image focused, and perfectionism driven—all things that fall under the ‘social’ part. Body dissatisfaction and body anxiety are beginning at younger ages due to exposure to these messages, and as our society becomes more connected and ‘plugged in,’ it is getting seemingly harder to ignore them,” she says. Frequently, comparison to peers and media influence are major factors that contribute to the development of low self-esteem and poor body image.

“It can feel like an uphill battle to help reach out and provide support for kids,” Garrold admits.  “Keeping an eye out for warning signs, like social withdrawal, critical or comparative comments about or related to peers or celebrities, fixation on being ‘the best’ or feeling the need to be perfect, [and] fixation with weight or food can offer insight into areas kids and teens might be struggling with.”

“Body of a Tree”
Like a tree…my body is as healthy as it can be.
Ethan S. (Pine Grove Middle School) 2015

What can we do in Massachusetts to get involved?

Garrold invites those of us outside of Maryland to participate as an out-of-state chapter, especially if we work with students or young adults. “Outreach programs like Love Your Tree are designed to combat negative messages by educating students about the effects of the media on self-esteem and body image. Allowing space and time for conversation around topics like body image can be empowering for students […] and providing education about media literacy (understanding some of the dynamics of advertising, [and] the use of photo alteration programs) is a great topic to include as well.”

Even if we can’t fully participate fully in LYT, the website offers resources and support, and Garrold stresses that the most important part is to help kids feel like they have someone to talk to and activities to engage in. She recommends the online gallery at www.loveyourtree.org to spark the conversation.

“Our culture seems to spend a lot of time discussing criticism and flaws and not enough time discussing successes and positive attributes. Encouraging kids and teens to get involved in activities they enjoy, engage with peers, feel comfortable and safe enough to explore their talents, and celebrate what makes each individual unique are all ways we can help foster healthier students, which in turn, fosters healthier communities. The hope is that starting on a small scale will snowball into larger messages of healthy self-esteem and body acceptance.”

Bringing it back to Friedman

As part of a school focused on nutrition science and policy, we are well aware of the health challenges our nation faces, and the role proper nutrition can play. Decades of research associating overweight and obesity with increased risk for disease and lower quality of life has called us to lead the crusade for health—to prevent or reduce overweight and obesity by empowering individuals and communities to prioritize nutrition and its downstream health benefits. We know that obesity and disease disparately affect those of low socioeconomic status, and understand that it takes a multi-pronged intervention to make a dent in reshaping a community.

“Love Every Tree, Love Every Body
Like a tree…my body is unique and beautiful.
Amelia R. (Patterson Mill High School) 2015

But have we been paying enough attention to weight stigma? The American Academy of Pediatrics very recently released a policy statement about weight stigma experienced by children and adolescents with obesity, which is a must-read for anyone working with this population (likely all of us, in some regard). In it, they point out that weight stigma is widely tolerated because our society believes it will motivate people to lose weight, despite its counterproductive contribution to behaviors such as binge eating, social isolation, avoidance of health care services decreased physical activity and ultimate accelerated weight gain over time[v].

Instead of focusing on reversing weight gain trends, perhaps we should focus on reversing the plague of weight stigma. Health behaviors exist outside of body mass index, and focusing wholeheartedly on weight has proven to be undeniably ineffective, and perhaps harmful, in cultivating healthy behavior change[vi],[vii],[viii].

As Garrold encourages, “helping establish a healthy (or healthier) self-image is essential to prevention of and recovery from eating disorders.” Everyone can benefit from feeling more connected to and proud of their body.

If you are interested in getting involved in the Love Your Tree campaign, visit www.loveyourtree.org for more information. The 2017-2018 campaign is NOW OPEN and accepting poster submissions from students of all ages. Visit the website to view past submissions and learn how to submit an entry.

Hannah Meier is a Registered Dietitian, second year Nutrition Communications student, aspiring eating disorder specialist and an advocate for healthcare that does not stigmatize based on weight. Her favorite ways to honor her body include twisting and balancing in yoga poses and wearing extra soft pajamas as often as possible.

Resources

[i] The Renfrew Center Foundation for Eating Disorders, Eating Disorders 101 Guide: A Summary of Issues, Statistics and Resources, 2003.

[ii] Hudson, J., Hiripi, E., Pope, H., & Kessler, R. (2007) “The prevalence and correlates of eating disorders in the national comorbidity survey replication.” Biological Psychiatry, 61, 348–358.

[iii] Strother, E., Lemberg, R., Stanford, S. C., & Turberville, D. (2012). Eating Disorders in Men: Underdiagnosed, Undertreated, and Misunderstood. Eating Disorders, 20(5), 346–355. http://doi.org/10.1080/10640266.2012.715512

[iv] Boyce, W. F., King, M. A. & Roche, J. (2008). Healthy Living and Healthy Weight. In Healthy Settings for Young People in Canada.

[v] Pont, S. J., Puhl, R., Cook, S. R., & Slusser, W. (2017). Stigma Experienced by Children and Adolescents With Obesity. Pediatrics. Retrieved from http://pediatrics.aappublications.org/content/early/2017/11/16/peds.2017-3034.abstract

[vi] Thompson JK, Stice E. Thin-ideal internalization: Mounting evidence for a new risk factor for body-image disturbance and eating pathology. Current Directions in Psychological Science. 2001;10(5):181-3.

[vii] Pelletier LG, Dion SC, Slovinec-D’Angelo M, Reid R. Why do you regulate what you eat? Relationships between forms of regulation, eating behaviors, sustained dietary behavior change, and psychological adjustment. Motivation and Emotion. 2004;28(3):245-77

[viii] Bacon L, Stern JS, Van Loan MD, Keim NL. Size acceptance and intuitive eating improve health for obese, female chronic dieters. Journal of the American Dietetic Association. 2005;105(6):929-36.

One Hundred and Fifty-Six

One hundred and fifty-six.

That is the number of new, incoming Masters, Ph.D., and Certificate Program students to the Friedman School this year. 156 new faces, new names to learn, new friendships to forge… all future experts in food, nutrition, science, and policy! Let’s break down the numbers.

Friedman's incoming class, 2017.

Friedman’s incoming class, 2017.

To all of you: welcome to Friedman! And for the returning cohorts: welcome back! I’m really excited to meet the new class, and I hope that we’ll cross paths in the halls of Jaharis.

But let’s get to introductions: Hey! I’m Kathleen Nay, co-editor of the Friedman Sprout. I’m a third-year dual degree student in the Agriculture, Food & Environment (AFE) and Urban & Environmental Planning & Policy (UEP) programs. I’m thrilled to be co-editing the Sprout for a second year, and eager to dive head first into my final year of graduate school. In Alberta, Canada—where I hail from—we’d say, “just give’r!” (For those unfamiliar with the verb, Urban Dictionary defines it as “going balls-to-the-wall to take care of business as quickly and awesomely as possible. May or may not involve drop-kicking something without hesitation.” Now you know.)

The past two weeks have been busy for all of us as we shop classes, meet with advisors, finalize schedules, and decide how and where to get involved in student life. At the Friedman Sprout, we’ve been gearing up for an exciting year and planning fun things for our writers (more on that from my illustrious co-editor, Hannah, below). We hope YOU will join us in crafting this year’s Friedman Sprout—a publication produced entirely by students. Please pitch us your ideas, we’d love to hear from you!

If writing isn’t your thing (it is—you just don’t know it yet), there are so many other opportunities to leave your mark on our Friedman community. In this special mid-month issue, you’ll hear from student leaders who are busy planning the year ahead. Student leaders like:

  • Danielle Krobath, Student Council Co-Chair. From the annual Welcome Back Picnic, to advocating for new computers in the student lounge and student-accessible meeting spaces, to the year-end retreat at George’s Island, and everything in between, Student Council is actively engaged in shaping Friedman student life.
  • Simon Ye, Chair of Slow Food Tufts. Slow Food Tufts is a chapter of Slow Food International, a grassroots organization promoting good, clean, and fair food for all. Not only does Slow Food host events like kimchi-making workshops and local chocolate factory tours, it’s a great way to get to know students from other programs and to learn about the greater Boston food community.
  • Bridget Carle and Casey Florea, organizers for Dig In! Nutrition Education (DINE). DINE is an ongoing partnership with third grade classrooms at Josiah Quincy Elementary School, where Friedman students teach lessons on nutrition and food. It’s a low-commitment, but high-fun way to give back to the Chinatown community in a positive way.
  • Hannah Meier, Sara Scinto and Jessie Ellis, advocates of the Friedman Unofficial Running Club (FURC). Got some energy to burn off? Need some friends to hold you to your distance goals? Want to explore new corners of the Boston area on foot? Check these folks out.
  • Kenny Westerman, Katherine Rancano, Jessie Ellis, and Jennifer Huang, coordinators of NewTrition, a TED Talk-style platform for Friedman students to share research and generate discussion about topics in nutrition.
  • Julie Kurtz, member of the Friedman Justice League, a grassroots group committed to making Friedman—and the world—a better place through thoughtful engagement with our food system.

It’s a new year. Let’s make our mark! Hey, Hannah, how is Sprout making our mark this year?

Thanks, Kathleen! I’m super excited about everything we have in the works. Before I get to that, let me introduce myself.

Hi! My name is Hannah Meier, I’m a second-year (fourth semester) student in the Nutrition Communications program and I’m thrilled that I get to be one of the editors of the Sprout this year. I really enjoyed participating as a contributing writer last year. I learned so much about myself as a writer and a professional in the nutrition space, and encourage anyone and everyone to write about the topics they are passionate about—it’s not only a great way to establish more expertise for yourself (and build out that resume!), but an amazing chance to immerse yourself into the buzzing food and nutrition community in Boston.

The Sprout will continue to publish student-written articles monthly. We have traditionally focused on written articles, but would love to see students get creative with other media platforms like video, photography, graphic design, or audio.

If you haven’t signed up to receive communication about writing for the Sprout, send us an email and we’ll get you squared away: friedmansprout@gmail.com.

We are also ramping up our social media presence. We hear you: Facebook is so 2010. While we aren’t leaving Facebook (it’s a great way for us to share the fabulous articles students write with everyone from grandma to embassy ambassadors), we are venturing into other platforms like Instagram, beginning with a collaboration with @Tufts_Nutrition (follow them!). We hope to feature authors, articles, quotes, photography… anything and everything we are proud of by our fabulous contributors.

Speaking of our fabulous contributors, I am very excited to announce that we will debut a new tradition following each publication: Contributor Happy Hours! We all know that writing is rewarding, but sometimes so challenging. We don’t need to go through the rollercoaster in isolation! We are already excited to bask in the glow of publication bliss with fellow student writers and a fun beverage of choice. Social hour + incentive to write resume-boosting food and ag pieces, yes please!

Finally, Kathleen and I are working hard to pull together writing workshops this year, hosted by the Sprout and featuring influential voices in the food and nutrition writing space. We hope that these offer an opportunity to learn from the pro’s, get expert opinion on your assignments and submissions, and sharpen your writing skills. Writing, and communication in general, is critical when it comes to exerting expert influence within our fields, and we are excited to bring this learning opportunity to all Friedman students.

In good health,

Hannah and Kathleen

Friedman Sprout Co-Editors, Hannah Meier and Kathleen Nay

Friedman Sprout Co-Editors, Hannah Meier and Kathleen Nay

 

In this issue…

Hello Friedman!

by Danielle Krobath, Friedman Student Council

Welcome (and Welcome Back!) from Slow Food Tufts

by Simon Ye

Dig In to DINE this School Year!

by Bridget Carle and Casey Florea

Friedman Unofficial Running Club (FURC)

by Hannah Meier, Sara Scinto and Jessie Ellis

NewTrition Welcome Back 2017

by Kenny Westerman, Katherine Rancano, Jessie Ellis and Jennifer Huang

Making a Lasting Impact on Friedman

by Julie Kurtz, Friedman Justice League

 

Finding Common Ground for Nutrition in a World of Alternative Facts

by Rachel Baer

Rachel Baer tackles the implications of the “post-truth” culture for the nutrition profession and poses 3 questions to consider about our response to the unending barrage of nutrition-related “alternative facts.”

As a registered dietitian, I can tell you this: Nutrition professionals know a thing or two about alternative facts. We spend our careers with textbooks and scientific journals in hand, waiting for the next misinformed food fad to go viral. We fight to defend the facts because we have always believed that if we could show people what is true, we could convince them that we have the best answers for their nutrition-related questions. But the concept of truth is losing popularity.

The Oxford English Dictionary declared the term “post-truth” to be the 2016 word-of-the-year. Post-truth is defined as “related to or denoting circumstances in which objective facts are less influential in shaping public opinion than appeals to emotion and personal belief.” Let that sink in for a moment: emotional appeals are more influential than objective facts. While this concept is alarming on many levels, I am particularly concerned about its implications for health professionals who rely on scientific truths as the basis of their credibility.

Don’t get me wrong. I understand the frustration people feel as they watch seemingly contradictory nutrition headlines emerge at the very hint of new research findings. One day people are told to limit egg consumption to 3 yolks per week, the next, the one-yolk-per-day allowance is back. However, as nutrition professionals, we have a certain appreciation for the fact that science is ever-evolving. We hold our recommendations lightly because we believe in a scientific community that is always growing, and that new discoveries only sharpen our understanding of nutrition and physiology. The public, on the other hand, does not always share this appreciation.

Confusion over wavering nutrition claims is exacerbated by the inundation of un-credentialed, unschooled voices clamoring for attention in popular media. Social media has provided a proverbial soapbox for anyone with a passionate message to share, regardless of qualifications. Simultaneously, dietitians tend to hold back on making bold retorts, often waiting for consensus to catch up with the fads so that our recommendations are supported with the latest research. This seeming imbalance of voices alongside the emergence of the post-truth culture only perpetuates the proliferation of unfounded claims, or “alternative facts,” as they have become popularly known.

I have no easy answers for this predicament, but here are 3 questions that we could benefit from exploring as nutrition professionals:

1. How do we remain experts while also being compelling?

Dietitians have long been referred to as the “food police.” While I resent this reputation, it highlights a worthy question: Do nutrition professionals present information in a way that is relatable, realistic, and winsome to the people whose respect we want to gain?

We can no longer depend solely on the letters after our names to gain an audience with the public, particularly when we are pitted against wayward blog and media influencers using sensationalized language to win over vast groups of people who blindly follow their passionate advice. The internet is full of examples of people preferring to follow the advice of a persuasive friend or influencer over the advice of a knowing professional. While this situation is endlessly frustrating to those of us who see through their hyperbolic messages, is there anything we can learn from these blog/media personalities that may help us reach the audience they seem to have hooked? How do we successfully build rapport with the public while maintaining good science?

2. How do we talk about fundamentals in a world that wants controversy?

Let’s face it. Fundamentals don’t make great headlines. For decades, consensus research has revealed that a diet full of minimally-processed fruits, vegetables, whole grains, nuts/seeds, lean proteins, and healthy fats is unequivocally and unanimously the best diet for human health. Yet, people still search elsewhere looking for the latest and greatest weight-loss, risk-reducing, and health-enhancing diets. Could it be that balance is more challenging than we thought? Perhaps avoiding certain food groups or food ingredients altogether is easier than the amorphous concept of moderation? Our greatest challenge is not getting more people to consume health information, it is finding new and compelling ways to deliver the information we’ve known for decades, and this is no small task.

3. How do we overcome differences within the nutrition profession to present a united front to people lost in the sea of alternative facts?

In 2014, David Katz and Walter Willet co-chaired a conference sponsored by the non-profit Oldways*, titled “Finding Common Ground.” Oldways and the co-chairs assembled what they referred to as “the dream team of nutrition experts,” including Friedman’s own, Dariush Mozaffarian, as well as Dean Ornish, creator of the Ornish Diet; David Jenkins, founder of the glycemic index; Boyd Eaton, originator of the Paleolithic diet; Collin Campbell, author of The China Study; and a myriad of others. Known most commonly for their differences, this group of scientists gathered together for the sole purpose of coming to a consensus on the basic tenants of a healthy diet. In the end, the group agreed on 11 common denominators of the widely differing philosophies they espouse. The topics ranged from fruit and vegetable consumption, to sustainability, to food literacy.

Following the conference, David Katz published an article in Forbes where he said “…it is the controversies at the edge of what we know that interest experts most, but ask [experts] about the fundamentals, and the vast expanse of common ground is suddenly revealed.” The Common Ground committee’s decision to gather around a table, invite open dialogue, and pursue unity is something we could all learn a lesson from. Alternative facts will always provide fodder for hucksters and peddlers of over-simplified nutrition information, but the scientific community has a vast body of research that unites us. As nutrition professionals, we cannot forget that our voices will always be more powerful together than they ever will apart.

Rachel Baer is a registered dietitian and a first-year in the NICBC program at Friedman. Her favorite foods are Brussels sprouts and brownies, and she loves nothing more than cooking great meals and gathering people around a table.

*Editor’s Note, 5/1/17  2:09 PM: An earlier version of this article incorrectly spelled the name of the organization, “OldWays.” The correct spelling is Oldways, and the change has been made above.