Wellness Weekly: A Snapshot of the Top News in Wellness

Policy and Politics

On Wednesday, the House Committee on Education and the Workforce approved the House’s version of the reauthorized Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act in a partisan vote, 20-14 (Republican). Supporters claim the bill will provide new flexibility to schools, and target funds more effectively to in need students. The bill changes the threshold for participating in the Community Eligibility Provision (from 40 percent to 60 percent) and establishes a block grant pilot project for school meals in three states – as part of the grant, states would receive flexibility from the new school lunch requirements championed by First Lady Michelle Obama. The USDA opposes the bill on the grounds that it would increase burdensome paperwork for high-poverty schools whose students qualify for free meals, and would also allow schools to begin selling soda and junk food in vending machines. The School Nutrition Association called the new bill “reckless,” opposing changes to the Community Eligibility Provision. Others worry that the bill’s block grant pilot program will pave the way for Republicans to transition the entire program into block grants, should the House bill become law. Advocacy organizations including National PTA, Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, AFT,  Pew Charitable Trusts, Salvation Army, Children’s Defense Fund and others also voiced their opposition.

The public commenting period for the FDA’s definition of “natural” closed last week, and the agency is now reviewing over 7,500 comments from consumers, researchers, companies, and policymakers. The process is expected to take months, though the FDA is under pressure to develop a definition due to the numerous court cases accusing companies of misleading consumers with the “all natural” label.

The FDA released its final ruling on an eagerly awaited update to nutrition facts labels. Among the major changes: added sugars will be reported on food packaging, and serving sizes will more accurately reflect the amount of food consumers actually eat. As expected, Michelle Obama spoke about the new label during her remarks at the PHA Summit.  

On Thursday, the Senate Appropriations Committee unanimously approved a spending bill to fund the USDA and FDA in FY2017. The bill allocates over $21 billion to the two agencies, and includes a provision blocking a USDA-proposed rule that would require convenience stores that accept food stamps to stock more healthy foods and produce. Many convenience store chains have expressed concern that the USDA rule would make them ineligible to accept SNAP benefits by removing some commonly stocked items (frozen pizza and TV dinners, for instance) from the “staple foods” list. The Congressional Black Caucus also weighed in, sending a letter opposing the USDA rule.

Senator Richard Blumenthal (D - CT) and Representative Chellie Pingree (D - ME) introduced a bill this week that would create a standardized system of labeling food. Citing confusion around “sell by,” “use by,” and “expires on” dates, the lawmakers seek to streamline the date labeling system in order to reduce food waste and simplify legal compliance for companies.

Next week, the Obama administration will issue final rules regarding employer-provided wellness programs, in which companies offer their employees “wellness benefits” such as on-site fitness classes or gym memberships. A provision in the Affordable Care Act lets employers offer financial incentives for leading healthier lifestyles, but wellness initiatives have come under fire for penalizing employees who don’t participate, as well as for intruding on employee privacy by requesting personal health data.

Refuting a challenge from beverage trade associations, a federal judge ruled this week that San Francisco’s proposed law for sugary drink ads, which requires the ads to include warnings of disease risk, can take effect this July as previously scheduled. The citywide law, the first of its kind in the nation, was passed unanimously last year and mandates that all public advertising for sugary beverages include a warning about the increased risk of obesity, diabetes, and tooth decay.

Illinois is proposing a one cent per ounce soda tax as a way of reducing state debt. The bill has yet to reach the floor of the legislature, but its proponents say the tax could generate $375 million per year for the state.


Children and youth

Far more kids eat apples when they are served sliced, according to a pilot study from the Cornell Food and Brand Lab. Thanks in part to efforts by school lunch programs and companies like McDonald’s, the country’s consumption of sliced apples increased by a factor of three from 2004 to 2014. The rise of sliced apples holds promise for child nutrition advocates, but environmental groups have raised concerns about the associated rise in plastic waste.

A study recently published in the American Journal of Preventive Medicine examined the role of neighborhood parks on physical activity, and found that girls and older adults use parks for recreation far less than boys, especially teens. It also found that parks in low-poverty areas saw more use than parks in high-poverty areas with the same facilities. This is the first study to examine parks nationwide.


New insights

A new meta-analysis in JAMA Internal Medicine associated moderate to vigorous exercise with much lower risks of cancer. The evaluation of 12 studies, including nearly 1.5 million participants, found that exercise reduces the odds of 13 types of cancer, even for people who are overweight or obese, or who smoke. The authors note that there is no evidence of causality between physical activity and reduced risk of cancer.

Following up on its 2013 commitment to improve the health of its products, Dannon announced at this week’s Building a Healthier Future Summit that it has successfully made three-quarters of its products low- or non-fat. The company is also over 90 percent of the way towards a goal to reduce the sugar content in all children’s products to below 23g per serving.

General Mills announced an $18 million investment in Kite Hill, a Bay Area startup that makes dairy substitute products from nuts.

For the third straight year, Washington, DC was named the fittest city in the US according to the American Fitness Index, followed by Minneapolis-St. Paul and Denver.

Later this month, Whole Foods will open the first of its 365 line of stores in the Silver Lake neighborhood of Los Angeles. 365 stores will be smaller markets with fewer offerings and lower prices than the flagship Whole Foods stores, with the aim of appealing to younger and less affluent consumers.


Innovative models, med tech and wearables

The New York Times surveyed the landscape of telemedicine this week, noting the promise of virtual doctor’s visits but also exploring existing legislative and institutional challenges. The article comes amid skepticism regarding the growing industry, including a recent study in JAMA Dermatology that called out telemedicine sites for incorrect diagnoses and poor recommendations.


Clean Labels/Natural and Safe Products/Circular Economy

The Washington Post dug into the organic vs. conventional debate, laying out the pros and cons of organic milk, produce, eggs, fish, and meat, considering both nutrition and potential contaminants. Separately, they assessed whether organic farming is better for the environment, finding that while all organic and all conventional farming processes are not created equal, organics may use less energy, have more fertile soil, and be more profitable, while conventional systems lead to higher yields.

In a 400-page report published Tuesday, the National Research Council concluded that genetically modified crops (and the food products made with them) are safe to eat. The report suggested that while labeling GMOs would not be necessary for health reasons, it could still be justified as a means of giving consumers more information about what they eat.

According to a survey by the Organic Trade Association, sales of organic products in the U.S. hit a new record high of $43.3 billion in 2015. This figure marked an 11 percent increase from the previous year.

This week, the skin care and cosmetics company Beautycounter sent representatives to DC to lobby on behalf of new cosmetic safety laws. Beautycounter and CEO Gregg Renfrew have taken a strong stand for increased federal regulation of the chemical ingredients in cosmetic products, and are seeking an update to federal laws about the safety of personal care products that have not changed since 1938.

A new lawsuit is accusing the Kellogg Company of misleading consumers with the labeling of its whole-grain Cheez-Its. The Center for Science in the Public Interest, which is acting as co-counsel, argues that the whole-grain version of the crackers is primarily made with enriched white flour and is “virtually indistinct” from the normal Cheez-It.

Oregon’s Hood River County has passed the country’s first initiative to ban commercial water bottling, blocking the efforts of Nestle SA to tap a spring near the city of Cascade Locks. Industry representatives fear that the measure could set a precedent for other communities, including some in California, Maine, and Montana, who seek to keep out water bottling corporations.

Two of the largest produce trade organizations, the Produce Marketing Association and the United Fresh Produce Association, are coming together in support of more responsible, ethical farm labor practices.


Philanthropic updates and Grants

On Thursday, the Kresge Foundation announced the 26 winners of its FreshLo grant competition, which will support neighborhood projects focused on developing food-oriented initiatives. The grantees are nonprofits and coalitions in low-income urban areas around the country, who will receive $75,000 planning awards to design community programs around health and food access.

Forbes this week profiled three companies – Geoffrey Beene, Patagonia, and Warby Parker – whose philanthropic efforts have led to boosts for business. The report evaluates how targeted corporate social responsibility campaigns, like Warby Parker’s one-for-one glasses donation model, help retailers increase brand recognition and build customer loyalty.



Amazon is expanding its private-label offerings to include “nuts, spices, tea, coffee, baby food and vitamins, as well as household items such as diapers and laundry detergent.”

Tired of paleo? The artisan bread movement (using freshly ground whole wheat flour) is improving the nutritional content of bread – and paving the way to healthier carbs.