Maddie Oatman

Maddie Oatman

Senior Research Editor

Maddie oversees Mother Jones' research department and manages its Ben Bagdikian Fellowship Program. She mostly writes about culture, food, environment, and the West. Her work has also appeared in Grist, Huffington Post, Outside, and the Rumpus, among others. Email tips to moatman [at] motherjones [dot] com.

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Soon You Might Actually Be Able to Tell How Much Added Sugar Is in Your Food

| Tue Jul. 28, 2015 6:09 AM EDT

When the popular news quiz show Wait Wait...Don't Tell Me! hosted the country's Surgeon General, Vicek Murthy, last weekend, he was confronted with the question: What's your one weakness? "Sweets," he answered, "I like bread pudding and cheesecake, in particular."

Even if you're concerned about your levels of added sugar intake, it's nearly impossible to tell how much you might be eating.

Many of us can identify with the hankering for the occasional piece of cheesecake after dinner. But lots of the added sugar you inhale probably doesn't come in the form of dessert. Rather, Americans get much of their sweetening in the form of beverages—especially soda—and packaged foods that at first glance seem snacky or savory (yep, one serving of hoisin sauce has two whole teaspoons; barbecue sauce one and a half). While the World Health Organization has suggested that adults should get no more than 5 percent of their daily calories from added sweeteners—that's about 6 teaspoons—the average American ingests roughly five times that amount every day.

For decades, researchers and doctors have been sounding the alarm about the negative health risks associated with a diet too rich in added sugars—from obesity, poor nutrition, diabetes, and even heart disease. But as I've written about in the past, even if you're concerned about your levels of added sugar intake, it's nearly impossible to tell how much you might be eating: Current food labels don't require added sugar to be listed. There's even indication that food companies have gone to great lengths to keep that information hidden from the public's eyes. The US Department of Agriculture used to list added sugars for popular products in online, but the database was removed in 2012 after companies claimed that added sugar amounts should be considered trade secrets.

So in March, the Food and Drug Administration proposed revising nutrition labels to include added sugars on packaged foods. And on Friday, the agency went even further by proposing to require that packaged food companies must also include a percent daily value of added sugar on the nutrition label. (The daily value would be based on the recommendation that added sugar not exceed 10 percent of total calories, or roughly 12 teaspoons of sugar a day).

The FDA has already received pushback from industry groups about the attempt to make added sugar quantities more transparent; the Corn Refiner's Association questioned the agency's "statutory authority to do so" and complained of a lack of "credible scientific evidence." Meanwhile, Kellogg argued that the proposal "to distinguish added sugars...may confuse consumers." Of course, Kellogg happens to be the world's "second largest producer of cookies, crackers, and savory snacks."

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America's BBQ Grills Create as Much Carbon as a Big Coal Plant

| Thu Jul. 2, 2015 1:48 PM EDT

As your neighbors fire up their barbecues this Independence Day, the most popular day in America to grill, they won't just send the scent of tri-tip or grilled corn over the fence in your direction—they'll also send smoke. As my colleague Kiera Butler wrote about here, even the "cleanest" gas grills emit pounds of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere every hour they're used. So how many emissions can we expect from dinner barbecues on the 4th?

Roughly eighty percent of American households own barbecues or smokers, according to the Hearth, Patio, and Barbecue Association. Let's say all 92.5 million of them decide to grill on Saturday. A 2013 study by HPBA found that 61 percent of users opted for gas grills, 42 percent for charcoal, and 10 percent for electric (some respondents had multiple grills). If that reflected all households across the United States, and each household used its grill for an hour on the 4th of July, then we'd get a calculation like this:

(56.425M gas grills*5.6 pounds of CO2) + (38.85M charcoal grills*11 pounds CO2) + (9.25M electric grills*15 pounds CO2 ) = 882 million pounds of CO2

That's roughly as many emissions as burning 2145 railcars of coal, or running one coal-fired power plant for a month.

But let's be honest—no one wants to give up summer grilling, and these emissions stats probably won't convince your neighbor to turn off the barbecue. You might instead offer up ideas on recipes with ingredients that are friendlier to the planet—like these 4 veggie burgers that don't suck.

Congress Doesn't Think Agricultural Sustainability Has Anything to Do With Your Health

| Fri Jun. 26, 2015 6:15 PM EDT

Every five years, the US government revisits its Dietary Guidelines—suggestions for how Americans should eat. The guidelines won't legally require you to, say, eat an apple a day, but they do affect things like agricultural subsidies and public school lunches, so they're fairly influential.

The National Cattleman's Beef Association argued that the Advisory Committee "clearly does not have the background or expertise" to tackle issues of sustainability.

When the committee tasked with making scientific recommendations for the 2015 Dietary Guidelines released its report this year, it ruffled some feathers. For the first time it included concerns about the environmental issues linked to certain dietary patterns and agricultural practices—for example, how eating less meat and more plant-based foods is "more health promoting and is associated with a lesser environmental impact." Or that assuring food security might rely on creating agricultural practices that "reduce environmental impacts and conserve resources."

Some lobbyists and politicians, especially those who pad their pockets with cash from Big Food and Big Ag, weren't too happy about these suggestions. As I've written in the past, the suggestion that plant-based diets might be healthier for people and the planet messes with the meat industry's bottom line, so why would they back it? In letters sent to Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack over the past few months, industry groups have tried to argue that sustainability issues do not fall within the scope of the Dietary Guidelines. One letter from the National Cattleman's Beef Association argued that the advisory committee "clearly does not have the background or expertise to evaluate the complex relationship between food production and the dietary needs of a growing American and international population."

The House Appropriations Committee on Agriculture, which accepted at least $1.4 million from the food industry in 2013 and 2014, apparently caved to these complaints. It recently stuck a rider in its 2016 Agricultural Appropriations bill that would A) explicitly prohibit the upcoming Dietary Guidelines from mentioning anything other than diet and nutrient intake, and B) force the guidelines to only rely on scientific evidence that has been rated "Grade 1: Strong" by the Department of Agriculture. Politico reported on Thursday that a similar Senate agriculture appropriations rider would force any advice in the Dietary Guidelines to be "solely nutritional and dietary in nature."

In an unprecedented move, the Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee has shot back with a letter of its own. Health and food systems should be more closely related in the government's eyes, the committee argued. "Future food insecurity is predictable without attention to the safety, quality, cost, and sustainability of the food supply," the letter stated, adding that "the US health and public health systems are burdened with preventable health problems." In other words, to narrow the reach of the Dietary Guidelines is to ignore the connection between things like exercise and obesity, for instance, or agricultural pesticide use and disease. To read more of the DGAC's arguments, see the full letter here.

Expect the finalized Dietary Guidelines late this year. In the meantime, it looks like the DGAC isn't giving up the battle for a more holistic national framework for how people eat. They certainly have Food Politics author Marion Nestle on their side; as she summarizes on her blog:

[Members of the DGAC] were asked to review and consider the science of diet and health and did so. They reported what they believe the science says. Some segments of the food industry didn't like the science so they are using the political system to fight back. That some members of Congress would go along with this is shameful.

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