Wonkblog: Food Policy

The lesson of the food stamps vote: Party is all that matters now

The lesson of the food stamps vote: Party is all that matters now

Late Thursday, the House of Representatives voted, 217-210, to cut the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, formerly (and popularly) known as food stamps, by $39 billion over the next 10 years, a 5 percent cut relative to current law. As Brad explained Thursday, the plan would kick 3.9 million people off the food stamp rolls the coming year. After next year, it would reduce the rolls by about 2.8 million people each year.

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How much water should we be drinking? Science doesn’t have a clue.

A new campaign by Michelle Obama encourages Americans to drink more water. But how much more water you need to be drinking, or whether your water drinking is already up to snuff right now, turns out to be a nearly impossible question to answer.

The Centers for Disease Control does not issue guidelines for how much water Americans should aim to consume as it does with the food pyramid, which tells us how much to eat of different foods, and exercise guidelines, which advise us on how much physical activity we should work into our days.

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Will New York City's large soda ban backfire?

Will New York City's large soda ban backfire?

The whole Idea of New York City's (currently delayed) large sugary drinks ban was to get New Yorkers to consume less soda. But what if they actually ended up drinking more with such a regulation in effect?

That's the question raised in a new peer-reviewed paper from Brent Wilson, Stephanie Stolarz-Fantino and Edmund Fantino, which looks at what drinks people order when cup size gets capped at 16 ounces.

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Want to sell a candy bar as healthy? Use a green label.

Pop quiz: Which of the candy bars below is healthier?



You probably chose the top one, even though the two bars—and their accompanying labels—display exactly the same information. The key difference, as one new study in the journal Health Communications finds, is simply the color of the accompanying labels.

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Mississippi comes to defense of large sodas with 'anti-Bloomberg' bill

Mississippi comes to defense of large sodas with 'anti-Bloomberg' bill

A New York judge isn't the only one taking aim at New York City's ban on large, sugary drinks.

In a move to prevent such regulations from taking hold elsewhere, Mississippi legislators have passed an "anti-Bloomberg bill" that bars counties from passing and enacting laws that require calorie counts to be posted or caps the size of beverages or foods. You can read it here.

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Big soda wins its day in court

Big soda wins its day in court

New York City's ban on big drinks has, apparently, run into some big trouble.

A New York State Supreme Court judge has halted the new regulation banning sugary drinks larger than 16 ounces, which was supposed to take effect Tuesday. He described the law as "arbitrary," questioning whether it would actually lead to the intended decline in obesity rates.

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My milkshake brings all the regulators to the yard

My milkshake brings all the regulators to the yard

It's one thing to declare large sugary drinks as contraband, which New York mayor Mike Bloomberg infamously did late last year.

It's quite another to actually write the rules and regulations that determine what counts as a large sugary drink. That's where the regulators have to come in — and, down to the teaspoon and calorie, determine how to define the word "sugary."

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Fewer Americans want fries with that

Restaurant portion sizes have exploded in recent decades. A fast food soda is six times bigger now, than it was 60 years ago. Burger size has grown threefold.

A new report from the Hudson Institute picks up on a more recent, countervailing trend: Fast food restaurants are gravitating towards lower calories options and customers are buying them.

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Pretty much everything you eat is associated with cancer. Don't worry about it.

Pretty much everything you eat is associated with cancer. Don't worry about it.

It is, perhaps, one of the most common health-care headlines: A new study linking a new food with a cancer risk. Search for "foods associated with cancer" and Google returns 196 million results, including new studies this month on salt, aspartame and high-carb diets.

Well, good news! You probably don't have to pay much attention to any of those studies: The vast majority of studies purporting to link foods to cancer have incredibly weak associations, often insignificant, according to new research in the Journal of American Clinical Nutrition.

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Denmark scraps worlds first fat tax

Denmark scraps worlds first fat tax

About a year ago, the Danish government tested out a policy never before seen in the world. It implemented an across-the-board tax on all foods with a saturated fat content above 2.3 percent, with the hopes of reducing consumption of unhealthy foods.

But it didn't quite work that way. Some Danes did indeed switch to lower fat cheeses and dairy products, The Wall Street Journal's Clemens Bomsdorf reports. But a lot of them simply began to do their grocery shopping internationally, heading to countries that didn't levy a fine on fat:

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Bloomberg’s big soda battle heads to court

Bloomberg’s big soda battle heads to court

New York City’s large-soda ban is slated to take effect next March – but not if the beverage industry has anything to say about the matter. It filed a lawsuit late Friday with the New York State Supreme Court, alongside 11 other organizations, challenging the new regulation.

This isn’t a first for New York City. When Mayor Mike Bloomberg proposed requiring all chain restaurants to post calorie labels, it went through two years of legal wrangling (partially over whether the regulation infringed on First Amendment free speech rights) before ultimately taking effect.

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When the ‘large’ cookie is actually the smaller snack

When the ‘large’ cookie is actually the smaller snack

I’ve written a bit here about how portion size can effect how much an individual eats. Turns out, even smaller details can matter: How a food is labeled – whether as a “medium” or “large” cookie, for example – can also alter eating behavior.

NPR’s Helen Thompson and Shankar Vedantam report on an experiment from the University of Michigan’s Aradhna Krishna, where she labeled the same size cookie as “medium” or “large” for different groups of eaters. 

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Can these Minnesota ads reduce obesity?

Can these Minnesota ads reduce obesity?

The ad above comes from Blue Cross Blue Shield of Minnesota’s new anti-obesity campaign, which depicts obese and overweight parents setting unhealthy eating examples for their children, who are also overweight.

As anti-obesity campaigns go, its not getting the friendliest of receptions. “We’ve been shaming fat people for decades, and clearly it’s not doing anyone any good,” Jezebel’s Lindy West told NPR. Yale’s Rebecca Puhl pointed to research suggesting that people respond better to positive messages about healthy eating rather than negative ones. 

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A small fat tax that could make a big difference

Columbia University’s Ray Fisman notices an interesting new study on milk pricing that suggests a small fat tax, increasing the relative cost of fattier foods by a quarter or two, could go a long way.

Economists Romana Khan, Kanishka Misra and Vishal Singhexploited a natural variation in milk pricing. In some supermarkets, full-fat milk and skim milk come with the same price-tag. In others, fat-free milk is priced cheaper to reflect the fact it actually has less value (since butterfat is an “expensive component,” the authors explain, “the cost of milk increases with its fat content.”)

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Schools’ big soda purge

Schools’ big soda purge

Schools have begun ditching soda machines en masse, according to new research from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation. Here’s what their researcher Yvonne Terry-McElrath found when she looked at how many secondary schools stock soda drinks:




“We’ve seen work on this issue from a lot of different groups,” Terry-McElrath told me in an interview. “You have policymakers at the state level, and also more local, moving policies into this direction. I also think you’re seeing movement from parents and individuals who are becoming more aware of what is and isn’t healthy.”

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What would Batman eat?

What would Batman eat?



Researchers at Cornell University’s Food and Brand Lab have a new, albeit, unconventional take on how to solve our obesity crisis: Call in the comic book super heroes.

Brian Wansink ran an experiment where children at a summer camp were given a choice between normal french fries and healthier apple fries (thinly sliced apples). Unsurprisingly, nearly all campers chose the french fries.

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Healthy food is cheaper — at least by weight.

Healthy food is cheaper — at least by weight.

It’s often taken as an article of faith in food policy discussions: Healthy eating is expensive. The Department of Agriculture recently set out to test whether that was actually the case. It compared prices of more than 4,439 food items, everything from sliced ham to canned peaches to potato chips.

The answer? It all hinges on how you measure “price.” Food policy analysts have often looked at cost-per-calorie, pricing out each unit of food energy. By that metric, fruit and vegetables tend to come out incredibly costly: A head of romaine lettuce has nothing, calorie-wise, on a candy bar.

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Have California schools cracked the code on obesity?

Have California schools cracked the code on obesity?

When it comes to nutrition policy, we know about a lot of things that don’t work: Soda taxes and proximity to healthy foods, for example, have relatively shaky support in the public health literature. At the same time, we know we need something to work: The CDC projects that 42 percent of the country will be obese by 2030.

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A (small) cookie a day keeps the doctor away


(istock)
When it comes to preventing obesity, portion size matters -- a lot. That’s the takeaway from a new study in the Journal of Nutritional Education and Behavior. Kids who were offered cookies that had been cut in half ate fewer calories than kids offered whole cookies with the same total amount of calories as the total amount of the smaller sweets.

The experiment was a simple one: Schoolchildren in Belgium were offered either big or small cookies at snack time and told they could eat as much as they’d like. “Although all participants were served equivalent amounts of food, children offered small cookies consumed a significantly smaller gram weight than children offered large cookies,” the researchers found. That translated into 25 percent fewer calories consumed at snack time.

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Battling the popcorn lobby

Among its many provisions, the Affordable Care Act requires chain restaurants to label their menus with calorie counts. The Food and Drug Administration is writing the final ground rules on this but has found itself entangled in a big fight over one seemingly small provision: Should the regulations cover movie theaters?

Movie theaters lobbied aggressively against the idea (Bloomberg News had a great story on this). And, in draft rules, they were successful: The FDA decided that movie theaters were among a small handful of establishments that serve food but would not have to provide lists of caloric content (amusement parks, airplanes and trains also fall into this category).The ice cream parlor lobby was, apparently, less successful, as its establishments are among those that will have to provide menu labels.

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Don’t blame food deserts for obesity


(Jewel Samad - AFP/GETTY IMAGES)
A new paper is challenging the notion that “food deserts” — rural and urban areas where nutritious food is difficult to obtain — are to blame for the rise in obesity.

Many have argued that those who live in unhealthy food environments — heavy on fast food, light on grocery stores — are more likely to consume less nutritious options. But Roland Sturm, an economist at RAND Corporation, analyzed the food environments of 13,000 adolescents in California, looking at how many fast-food restaurants and supermarkets were within a 1.5-mile radius of their homes and schools. He then looked at how much fast food, fresh fruits and other foods the kids consumed. And his study found no correlation between what food sources kids lived near, what the kids ate and how much they weighed.

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Why we don’t eat our vegetables

Why we don’t eat our vegetables

New research in the journal Public Health Nutrition offers some surprising findings on what prevents people from eating more healthily. The study’s authors looked at fruit and vegetable consumption in six low-income, primarily minority neighborhoods in Chicago, and they found that convenience was key among those who eat more produce. Participants who agreed that they had “convenient access to quality” produce were more than twice as likely to eat the FDA-recommended amounts of fruits and vegetables, compared to those who said they did not have such access.

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Would you like fewer fries with that?


(Reuters)
A team of behavioral economics researchers find something surprising in this month’s “Health Affairs”: When fast-food patrons are offered a suggestion to downsize their portions, they actually do it.

Only 1 percent of customers spontaneously requested downsizing of a high-calorie, high-starch side dish in the baseline periods, when no explicit downsizing offer was made. Thirty-three percent of customers accepted the downsizing offer. As noted above, there was no significant difference in acceptance rates with and without the nominal discount. Customers who downsized did not compensate by choosing higher-calorie entrées, nor did they proceed to order lower-calorie entrees. Therefore, downsizing led to the purchase of significantly fewer mean overall calories.

Also notable: The presence of calorie labels did not seem to impact diners’ decisions to downsize, nor did it matter if a 25-cent discount was offered for the small portion of food.

Should we regulate sugar like alcohol?

Should we regulate sugar like alcohol?

A paper in this month’s Nature makes the case:

Government imposed regulations on the marketing of alcohol to young people have been quite effective, but there is no such approach to sugar-laden products. Even so, the city of San Francisco, California, recently banned the inclusion of toys with unhealthy meals such as some types of fast food. A limit — or, ideally, ban — on television commercials for products with added sugars could further protect children’s health.

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From the department of healthy school lunches

From the department of healthy school lunches

Getting students to eat healthy is a big policy challenge, with plans often thwarted by the kids themselves. Sometimes students don’t pick the healthy option or, if unhealthy options are banned, they get smuggled in. But one relatively simple and inexpensive intervention is showing some promising results: putting photographs of vegetables in the compartments of students’ lunch trays.

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Does impatience make us fat?

As the American obesity rate keeps ticking upward, it masks other key trends. One is that, for a decent part of our population, weight actually isn’t going up. The slimmest segments remain just as thin as they were 40 years ago.

Instead, a lot of the weight gain has been concentrated in a smaller group of Americans. That’s created more variation in weight, a bigger gap between the lightest and heaviest Americans. Here’s what that looks like in graph form (for context, the National Institute of Health defines normal weight as a body mass index, or BMI, between 18.5 and 24.9. A BMI over 30 is considered obese):

Our increase in obesity is often explained, in large part, by a rise in the availability of cheap, unhealthy foods. But here’s what it doesn’t explain: Why are some Americans gaining a lot more weight, and others essentially staying the same? It’s not as if the slimmest individuals are living in isolation from McDonalds.

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