HIST 410: Week 12

Secret Ingredients, Relative Risk, and Regulation

We assume our food is safe. We assume that corporations that sell us food or nutritional supplements aren’t adulterating it, that the labels are accurate, and that claims about health benefits aren’t entirely fictitious. History shows that these are not good assumptions. This week we focus a little less on health per se and more about health claims, regulation, and safety—obviously continuing our line of inquiry from last week. BIG POINTS for this week.

Because I suspect there will be some distraction with the election (especially the aftermath), we have a slightly lighter week this week with nothing due before Friday—but you’ll want to have gotten the two readings done before then you so you can write your Friday reflection.

One of the main takeaways from the readings (which can get a bit lost in the regulatory history) is that the responsibility of knowing if a given supplement or food additive is safe, or that a product has the nutritional benefit that a label or package might claim, has largely been placed almost entirely on the consumer. If you’ve learned anything in this class, you’ve probably picked up on the near impossibility of that actually happening given the conflicting science, rhetoric, values in dietary advice.

Questions to keep in mind with the readings—questions you’ll want to consider before crafting your Friday reflection (and for other stuff like the final as well):

  • What kinds of arguments has industry made to influence federal regulation/oversight?
  • How is science used to determine safety?
  • Why do we need food dyes anyway? Why is there so much non-food in our food?
  • If the FDA is concerned about immediate safety (avoiding acute poisoning), and the FTC is concerned about commerce (enabling consumers to buy what they’d like and enable a robust economy), who is looking out for our long-term health?
  • We consider some dietary advice (moderation!) more like common sense than expert advice. Is it common sense how deceptive labels can be? Sure, everyone recognizes the power of marketing and advertising—but are they influential anyway? Should that affect labeling regulation?

Read before Friday

  • Marion Nestle, Food Politics: How the Food Industry Influences Nutrition and Health, Chapter 10: “Science Versus Supplements”, 219–235; skim 236–244; 245–246. What specifically about the regulatory process of supplements might give you pause about their safety or efficacy?

  • Wendee Nicole, “Secret Ingredients”, Environmental Health Perspectives 121.6 (2013): A126–A133. This article is about food additives and the sketchy regulations (and the uses of science) that govern them and their safety. There’s a quote in the article: “Whether a food ingredient is GRAS (generally recognized as safe) depends on the general recognition of safety, not on safety per se”. What does that really mean? How is that true? What are the implications of GRAS for food safety and regulation?

Stuff to skim through

Fri 11/6