Wellness Weekly: A Snapshot of the Top News in Wellness

Policy and Politics

An overview of relevant policy, regulatory, and political events

On Thursday, the Senate Agriculture Committee introduced a bill requiring companies to label food that contains genetically modified ingredients. The proposed measure gives companies three options for how to disclose the information: adding a label to packaging, providing a QR code that consumers can scan, or offering a phone number or website with more information. Food and agriculture industry groups have endorsed the bill, but it has been criticized by pro-labeling advocates including Senator Bernie Sanders - the labeling law in his home state of Vermont, which goes into effect July 1, will require on-package labeling for all companies.

The House Agriculture Committee on Wednesday held a hearing focused on federal nutrition programs. Witnesses including healthcare representatives and SNAP nutrition education experts shared the successes and challenges of using government support to create healthy eating initiatives for underserved populations. Shreela Sharma, co-founder of Brighter Bites, testified to the importance of federal funding in creating effective nutrition programs for low-income families.

Following on the heels the soda tax passed in Philadelphia last week, officials in San Francisco have added a penny-per-ounce tax on sugary drinks to the November ballot. The city last attempted to pass a soda tax in 2014, but received only 54% of the two-thirds majority it needed; this time, the tax can pass with only a simple majority.

Maine Governor Paul LePage sent a letter to the USDA last week affirming his intentions to prohibit Maine citizens from using SNAP benefits to buy junk food and soda. The USDA rejected the initial request the governor made in March, and his latest letter states that if the agency does not cooperate, he may withdraw Maine from the SNAP program altogether. Nearly 200,000 Mainers receive SNAP benefits.

This week, Republicans in the House of Representatives released a report detailing the five principles of their healthcare agenda. The white paper focuses on providing Americans with more choice and flexibility in healthcare, and spurring innovation in cures, treatments, and medical devices.

 

Children and Youth

Keeping the K-12 population fit and eating well

This week, the Annie E. Casey Foundation released its 2016 Kids Count Data Book, which reports on nationwide child health and wellness between 2008 and 2014. While some figures, including teen birth rates, drug and alcohol abuse, and high school graduation, declined significantly over that time period, child poverty and median family income did not show any significant change. The data book also provides a state-by-state ranking, and Minnesota took the top spot for the second year in a row.

West Virginia has become the first state to enroll all of its public elementary schools in the Let’s Move! Active Schools initiative. As of this spring, all 441 elementary schools in the state take part in the program, which seeks to ensure that students get 60 minutes of physical activity during each school day.

 

New insights

Studies, new research, healthy nutrition and habits

A recent study of obesity trends, published in the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA), has found that the prevalence of obesity in adults increased 100 percent between 1999 and 2014. The Sugar Association has touted these findings alongside a decline in consumption of caloric sweeteners during the same time period, in an effort to argue that sugar has not been the main cause of increased obesity rates.

According to research conducted at Ohio State, women who work an average of 60 hours per week or more face a threefold increase in the risk of diabetes, cancer, and other life-threatening illnesses compared to those who work 40-hour weeks. The study found that men who worked long hours did not have the same risks, and researchers suggest that the difference could stem from the responsibilities women have historically had at home in addition to those in the office.

Researchers in the UK have found that a vegetarian diet can cut your carbon footprint in half. The study builds on existing evidence that meat has a greater impact on the environment than fruits and vegetables, and offers evidence that individual diets can play a role in reducing carbon emissions.

While more and more Americans are eating well and avoiding junk food, there are still stark racial and socioeconomic disparities in healthy eating habits, according to a study published in JAMA this week. Despite a 10% drop between 1999 and 2014 in the number of Americans with “poor diets” (based on standards set by the American Heart Association), affluent and white consumers consistently eat more vegetables and whole grains than lower-income, black, and Hispanic adults.

An experiment published this month in the Journal of Physical Activity and Health suggests that during long, desk-bound workdays, standing is little better than sitting for those hoping to avoid weight gain. While scientists have long known that standing up at work can help regulate blood sugar and lessen the risk of disease, it only burns 8 or 9 more calories per hour than sitting. Walking, however, burns three times as many calories as either sitting or standing.

New research indicates that during exercise, working muscles release a protein that helps build and strengthen one of the brain’s memory centers. The study, published in Cell Metabolism, showed that both mice and humans who exercised showed increased levels of the memory-enhancing protein cathepsin B - and performed better on memory tests.

Researchers at the University of California at San Francisco and Feeding America have launched an experimental trial at the Houston Food Bank related to diet, blood sugar, and Type 2 Diabetes. Through the experiment, patrons of the food bank with high blood sugar are offered the opportunity to enroll in a six-month program to better manage it. Those who opt in to the program receive bags of healthy food selected by a staff member two times a month, as opposed to choosing food off the shelves for themselves. Additionally, they receive diabetes management classes and regular blood sugar checks, and are referred to a primary care physician. Results from a similar pilot study published in 2015 suggest that modest improvements in blood sugar levels through this type of program are possible.

 

Innovative models, med tech and wearables

The once-hot trend of workplace wellness benefits has begun to cool, according to a new survey from the Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM). Health benefits, from on-site flu vaccinations to yoga classes to insurance discounts for weight loss, have declined in recent years, which researchers at SHRM say may stem from new employer analysis of return-on-investment and employee participation data.

Two reports released this week indicate that the “grocerant” (or hybrid grocery store/restaurant) is becoming an increasingly popular model of food shopping, especially for millennials. The NPD Group found that sales of prepared food from grocery stores have increased 30% over the past eight years, and a research note from Oppenheimer estimates that thanks to robust prepared food offerings, new “grocerants” like 365 by Whole Foods could capture significant market share from traditional restaurants.

A similar change is occurring at farmers markets, which are seeing increases in prepared food consumption at the expense of fruit and vegetable sellers. The Washington Post investigated the demographic shifts at DC-area farmers markets as shopping-oriented consumers are edged out by a younger clientele more interested in eating and socializing.

Fitbit has introduced a new feature aimed at helping users set a consistent sleep routine. The setting, known as “Sleep Schedule,” enables Fitbit wearers to set sleep goals and bedtime targets, and makes suggestions as to when to go to sleep and wake up.

Google’s new “symptom search” function, which provides a streamlined way for Google users to identify the causes of various health symptoms, is now available on mobile devices. The search engine company worked with medical experts at Harvard and the Mayo Clinic to develop a system that provides tailored search results, with detailed information about possible conditions for a given symptom.

NPR looked into the economic breakdown of digital health apps and services, finding that most tech-based health solutions are primarily used by wealthy individuals. A few small experiments are underway to bring digital health tools to low-income communities, such as a text messaging service that delivers information for pregnant women and a loaner program for smartphones to enable video visits with medical professionals.

The market for plant-based food alternatives is expected to stay strong, according to a new report released this week by Wedbush. Products like soymilk and meatless meat products have steadily increased in popularity, and continued consumer interest in health and environmental concerns is expected to drive further success for plant-based food companies.

 

Natural products, sustainability, and environment

Vox has offered a sharp critique of juice maker Ocean Spray for claiming that cranberries can help to prevent urinary tract infections. Ocean Spray bases its conclusion on a study which was co-authored by their own staff scientists, and the article argues that the researchers tweaked their data and definitions to produce favorable results.

This week saw two major food product recalls. Minnesota-based food production company GNP recalled over 50,000 pounds of chicken this week that was contaminated with “extraneous materials” including sand and black soil. Also, the school lunch provider Integrated Food Services recalled 45 pre-made sandwich products from public schools in Houston, Portland, and Indianapolis, among others, due to possible contamination with the Listeria bacterium.

Three food safety advocacy organizations have won a lawsuit against the USDA in which they accused the agency of weakening a regulation on certain pesticides without going through the required public comment process. A federal judge in California ruled in favor of the Center for Food Safety, the Center for Environmental Health, and Beyond Pesticides, ordering the USDA to nullify its guidance on the pesticides.

Modern Farmer explored the environmental impacts of cold-pressed juice, which has continued to increase in popularity but creates substantial food waste. The piece digs into the research behind organic waste and recommends that popular juiceries like Whole Foods and Jamba Juice consider composting the leftover materials to improve soil quality or feed livestock.

 

Philanthropic Updates and Grants

Kellogg’s, in collaboration with Touchdown Ventures, has created a venture capital arm to invest in food-related startups. The fund, called Eighteen94 Capital, has the capacity to invest up to $100 million over the next five years both in North America and abroad. The fund will look to invest in organic food and beverage companies, as well as start-ups dedicated to packaging materials, ingredients, and marketing technologies.

The National Academies of Science, Engineering, and Medicine, in collaboration with the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, has created a $10 million grant program for projects focused on the impact of disasters and environmental stressors in the Gulf of Mexico region. The grant program will not only support the investigation of how mental and physical health, social cohesiveness, and well-being contribute to resilience in the face of adverse events, but also how to strengthen community resilience in the region.

The Twin Cities Metropolitan Council is launching an initiative to promote racial equity in public parks. The push for greater access reflects similar efforts in states such as Arizona, California, and Texas, where people of color make up disproportionately small percentages of state, local, and park visitors.

Brooklyn’s Kingsborough Community College (KCC) has cultivated an urban farm dedicated to addressing food insecurity on campus by providing free produce to the college’s student body. In addition to growing almost 4,000 pounds of food for students to consume each year, the farm is also utilized by the college’s culinary arts and research programs. Moreover, KCC’s unique farm-to-pantry college program also focuses on food system issues and institutional barriers to food security and health. 

 

Other

Hollywood stars including Arnold Schwarzenegger and James Cameron will be the public face of a new ad campaign by the Chinese government, which recently published new dietary guidelines recommending that consumers eat up to 50% less meat.

McDonald’s has traded margarine for butter in its Egg McMuffins in a span of six months, a lightning-fast turnaround for the fast food empire.

Fast Company took a look at the ongoing rivalry between Under Armour and Nike, as the former builds out its digital offerings and the latter touts the diversity of its employees.