Consumer groups, food industry jointly call on USDA/HHS to emphasize portion control in next Dietary Guidelines – National Consumers League

February 6, 2019

Media contact: National Consumers League – Carol McKay, carolm@nclnet.org, (412) 945-3242 or Taun Sterling, tauns@nclnet.org, (202) 207-2832

Washington, DC–Three national consumer advocacy organizations and six leading food industry trade associations joined together to call on the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) and the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) to emphasize portion control in the development of the official 2020-2015 U.S. Dietary Guidelines for Americans.

“One promising, and we think underutilized, strategy for tackling the obesity epidemic is helping consumers understand and implement appropriate portion control,” wrote the National Consumers League, the Consumer Federation of America, and Consumer Action. The consumer groups’ letter to USDA and HHS was cosigned by The Grocery Manufacturers of America, the Sustainable Food Policy Alliance (SFPA), the American Beverage Association, the Sugar Association, the National Confectioners Association, and the American Frozen Food Institute.

A copy of the letter can be accessed here.

The consumer groups and trade associations reminded the government that, “The current version of the Dietary Guidelines merely discusses portion size as an afterthought in strategies to improve diets and fight obesity, with the concept not even mentioned in the guidelines’ executive summary.”

Despite an array of consumer education efforts, including mandatory nutrition labeling on food packages and, more recently, on restaurant menus, obesity is still a dire problem. More than two out of three Americans remain overweight or obese, despite such efforts.

The consumer and industry groups noted that, “Larger portion sizes clearly contribute to increases in the rates of overweight and obesity . . . [we] therefore urge the Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee, once they are appointed and convened, to focus on portion control as a key strategy to address the rise of obesity and related dietary diseases.”

The National Confectioners Association has launched the Always A Treat Initiative. A central aspect of this voluntary industry effort is providing consumers with more choices in smaller portion sized packages. The founding members of the SFPA have taken similar steps.

The Grocery Manufacturers Association has long supported the need for portion recommendations when developing achievable and practical dietary guidance.

The American Beverage Association has committed to offering a wider variety of smaller portion sizes. Members of the American Frozen Food Institute offer a large variety of portion-controlled meal options, and the Sugar Association has publicized that sugar is best enjoyed in moderation.

The consumer advocacy groups and trade associations concluded, “These programs represent cost-effective measures to combatting obesity, but this is only a start. . . . [We] look forward to participating in the deliberations that will lead to the new Dietary Guidelines.”

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About the National Consumers League

The National Consumers League, founded in 1899, is America’s pioneer consumer organization. Our mission is to protect and promote social and economic justice for consumers and workers in the United States and abroad. For more information, visit www.nclnet.org.

Rosé explosion leading to fraud in wine industry – National Consumers League

Haley SwartzRosé – the pink wine that incorporates the skin of red grapes and the flavors of all other varieties – has exploded in popularity over the last five years. Rosé consumption is particularly skewed among millennials and during the summer months, aided by gender-inclusive hashtags, the development of new, millennial-targeted brands, and the particularly “Insta” quality of a pink wine. Consumption of rosé has now eclipsed white wine in France, and in the United States, data indicates Washington, DC is the “capital of rosé,” – illustrating its ubiquity across political and social cultures.Rosé has contributed to an overall growth in wine sales, as consumers increasingly buy rosé in addition to other white and red wines – and higher-priced rosés are bringing in greater profits than cheaper, generic offerings. Experts say rosé consumption differs from other millennial-led fad wine crazes – à la prosecco and Moscato of the late 2010’s – because it is simply a higher quality product.

However, a recent case of fraud in the rosé industry illustrates the safety and quality vulnerabilities faced by consumers throughout global beverage supply chains. Rosé is like champagne, whereby only grapes harvested in the Champagne region of France can be labeled as “real” Champagne. While other European producers have entered into the rosé market, the “best and truest” rosés are made with grapes grown in the Provence region of France. Such a limited geographical area for a “true” rosé supply, combined with soaring global demand, is the perfect recipe for fraud.

Over the past two years, wine merchants have unknowingly sold 10 million bottles of what they thought was pure French rosé – but was just a cheap Spanish red/white blend. Most of the mislabeled wine was sold in French establishments, but some was found in British retail – leading to the question of whether the mislabeled wine may have even entered U.S. markets. The mislabeling included either a “Vin de France” generic label or the more prestigious “IGP” label that refers to a protected geographic designation in French growing regions. Worse, other bottles – though labeled in small print as “Spanish” or “European” in origin – had French scenery on the bottle’s label, including the fleur-de-lis (the former royal arms of France). Such a blatant form of misrepresentation is all too common in the wine industry.

Further, most bottles were placed in the French rosé section of wine retail locations – and, of course, priced accordingly. The Spanish wine, which sold in bulk at only 34 euro cents a liter ($0.40 USD) must be compared to the 75-90 euro cent ($0.88-1.05 USD) price tag for a true French rosé – providing double the profit for the fraudulent producers.

French authorities have identified four wine producers at fault, but only one has been charged with commercial fraud. If found guilty, the producer could face up to two years in prison and a fine of 300,00 Euros. While it’s unlikely the fraudulent bottles are still in a store near you, consumers should learn one lesson from this whole episode: Read the label – all of it – and avoid being distracted by a pretty shade of pink.

Food policy 101: A three-part series | Part: What makes a food product “pro-consumer”? – National Consumers League

Haley SwartzYou walk into your favorite grocery store, proceeding down each aisle with your shopping list in hand. Can you imagine a world in which the cereal aisle is in conversation with you, instead of yelling at you, the way it seems to these days? Where the bright colors and endless rows of loudly-labeled boxes calm, not overwhelm you? Would that make you feel more confident in your granola of choice?

Choice and information are the two most desired qualities in any given consumer product. Food is no exception. But our supermarket anxieties have real consequences on our everyday interactions with food, or what is known as our surrounding food environment. Over the last two decades, much of the American food environment is marked by choice overload – where the “tyranny of too much” leads to confusion and ultimately, indecision. This is particularly true among socially and economically disadvantaged groups, which include communities of color and other minorities. Food justice organizations fight on behalf of these communities, which have historically lacked labor rights, access to nutrition education, and healthy food options.

Today, consumers have an unprecedented level of choice, and with it, information—tons of it. Servings per box, grams per day, % daily value. Not to mention claims of a food’s health-promoting properties (“improves heart health,” “energy booster,” and the infamous “natural”). Of course, consumer access to information is something advocates like NCL have been fighting for for more than a century. But between marketing claims and nutrition information, how can consumers avoid being overwhelmed and make decisions confidently?

Food justice: Balancing information and choice

The most successful policy proposals to promote food justice have taken root at the local and city levels. But as it stands, the food policy community as a whole strikes a balance between choice and information that is shaky at best. We seem to believe that more is always better – we fight for more choices in our brands, groceries, and restaurants and more information on a package, label, and the web. As communities of color continue to fight for equality in both food access and choice, is more always the goal? If it’s not, what would be just enough? How do we work to protect and promote all consumers, all while recognizing and respecting our differences?

So far none of us has uncovered all the answers to these questions. But we do know that we must work together to ensure information is both adequate and accurate. The food justice movement won’t be won until anyone – any consumer, despite the vast array of food environments nationwide – can pick up a bag of granola and say, with confidence, “This. This one.”

School lunches crucial for growing kids – National Consumers League

Students who are hungry or malnourished have trouble concentrating and learning. In fact, students who get healthier meals show a 4 percent improvement in test scores, according to Dr. Michael Anderson, associate professor of Agricultural and Resource Economics at the University of California, Berkeley. Anderson found that “students at schools that contract with a healthy school lunch vendor score higher on CA state achievement tests, with larger test score increases for students who are eligible for reduced price or free school lunches.”

Indeed, Congress recognized the value of a nutritious meal  when it enacted in 2010 the Healthy, Hunger Free Kids Act, spurred by First Lady Michelle Obama’s advocacy. In passing that Act, Congress noted that not only did children need regular meals but that healthier choices were better for children’s learning and cognition. So not only are more kids getting food, but the meals are healthier and include fruits and vegetables. As the USDA noted on its website:

Improving child nutrition is the focal point of the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act of 2010. The legislation authorizes funding and sets policy for USDA’s core child nutrition programs: the National School Lunch Program, the School Breakfast Program, the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants and Children (WIC), the Summer Food Service Program, and the Child and Adult Care Food Program. The Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act allows USDA, for the first time in over 30 years, opportunity to make real reforms to the school lunch and breakfast programs by improving the critical nutrition and hunger safety net for millions of children. 

But under Republican leadership, the House of Representatives, and now USDA Secretary Sonny Purdue, we may be taking steps backward. Perdue wants to roll back rules that required schools to reduce sodium content in meals and offer more whole grains.  In his rollback plan, Purdue is also raising the allowed fat content in flavored milk from fat-free to 1 percent. The Berkeley team led by Anderson has found that diets high in trans and saturated fats – often found in high sodium foods or highly processed foods – have a negative impact on learning and memory. Some may argue that students simply won’t eat fruits or vegetables in defense of rolling back the healthier meals. However, three large studies by Pew Charitable Trusts found that food waste – an issue NCL is deeply involved in – actually declined in 12 Connecticut schools when better nutrition rules were in place.

Making healthier foods more convenient for students decreased consumption of unhealthy foods by 28 percent. Simply moving the salad bar from a corner of the lunchroom to the center increased sale of these vegetables and fruits. In her recent column in the New York Times, columnist Jane Brody noted that, “offering students a choice between two vegetable options and having them pay cash for unhealthy items like desserts and soft drinks … may enhance consumption of healthier foods without reducing revenue or participation in school lunch programs. While the studies are not conclusive, they suggest that with a few simple steps, schools may have an impact on the foods students eat.”

School nutrition programs are helping kids across the country adopt healthier eating habits and become better learners. The proof is ample. Why go backwards now? NCL calls on USDA Secretary Perdue to resist industry pressure to reverse these promising trends in school lunch and other feeding programs for children.

Different perspectives on the controversial soda tax – National Consumers League

soda_tax.jpgBy Maureen Chircop, NCL Intern

In 2012, Mayor Michael Bloomberg of New York proposed a tax on sweetened beverages that the New York Court of Appeals struck down. Despite the soda tax’s failure, Mayor Bloomberg believed the tax would improve public health. On June 16, 2016, Philadelphia passed a soda tax bill. Instead of focusing on public health benefits, Philadelphia Mayor Jim Kenney concentrated on the community benefits of the soda tax, which amounts to an extra 1.5 cent on each ounce of soda sold.

Mayor Kenney predicts about $90 million in revenue will be generated by the end of next year. This money will be reinvested into community programs such as universal pre-k, community schools, and recreation centers. Not only do taxes on unhealthy habits work to promote positive public health benefits, but utilizing taxes to fund community programs are good for communities and should be encouraged.

For example, a previous tax that promoted positive public benefits is the federal cigarette tax that was passed in 2009. The law aimed to deter smoking by taxing cigarettes. An article from Fortune states that statistics show a decline in smoking occurs when tobacco taxes are present. The same article explains that “…tobacco taxes and consumption are strongly inversely related.” As the price of cigarettes increased, study after study has shown that smoking numbers have gone down. Therefore, it wouldn’t be surprising that a soda tax can garner similar results.

Opposing the tax, the American Beverage Association (ABA) believes that the positive health benefits are false. The ABA believes that the decline in soda consumption does not result in the decline of obesity. Although not all studies are complete because of the relative novelty of the tax, there are some promising trends. Studies do find a reduction in consumption of sugary beverages as their prices rise. According to a National Institute of Health (NIH) article, a 10 percent tax increase on soda has led to a 8 percent average decrease in consumption.

Despite the evident health benefits, those who oppose the soda tax say it may impact low income families more than middle class individuals. Even though this may be true, low income families reap the most benefits from a soda tax. The New England Journal of Medicine states that, “[H]igher taxes are particularly effective in poorer…groups,” which means that lower income individuals thus have a stronger incentive to curb their soda appetite. In addition, the health benefits are progressive for them.

A related tax that is creating positive public health benefits is the “junk food” tax in Mexico. The tax on junk foods in Mexico includes soda, of which Mexico has the fourth highest consumption rate. Despite contributing factors such as unemployment, marketing strategies, and other minor factors, overall soda consumption went down 12 percent over a year in Mexico.

Improved health is only one of the benefit of the soda tax. The tax can also produce much-sought-after funds for communities. For instance, in Mexico, the “junk food” tax raises $150,000 per month to orchestrate community initiatives to improve the health of the community. Similar to Mexico, Philadelphia politicians want to steer the funds to low-income communities for critical programs such as universal pre-k.

Critics that deny a correlation between taxes and health benefits are not looking at the tax through the correct lens. Yes, a soda tax may produce minimal health benefits, but there are still tangible health effects. Despite critics’ notion that a soda tax may not greatly reduce obesity rates, the revenue garnered from the tax will provide much needed community programs and initiatives that are extremely beneficial to lower income communities. In addition, a soda tax will reap fundamental revenue to invest in future generations of citizens.