By Marion Nestle
University of California Press; Revised and Expanded Edition (2007)
Marion Nestle is one of the most respected and frequently quoted authorities on food marketing and government nutrition policies. She was the chair of New York University’s Department of Nutrition, Food Studies and Public Health from 1988-2003 and has participated in several advisory committees and review boards regarding food and nutrition. Her CV contains an impressive list of academic and professional credentials, publications, honoraria and awards.
Food Politics, one of her most well-known works, is an in-depth and damning exposé of how food companies, lobbyists, government agencies, and congressional representatives often serve their own interests at the expense of public health. Unfortunately, her unquestionable expertise in these matters is clouded by her blanket condemnations of saturated fat, cholesterol and salt. Her clinging to outdated beliefs about these crucial nutrients overshadows what is otherwise an excellent treatise on the insidious and often invisible forces behind national nutrition policy.
Dr. Nestle explains the all-too-familiar revolving door between food companies, lobbying firms, and the highest echelons of government. The employment in regulatory agencies of individuals with long professional and financial ties to food processors is a glaring example of the fox guarding the henhouse. The same could be said for food industry sponsorship of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics (AND, formerly the ADA, American Dietetic Association). Nestle takes the AND to task for this supreme conflict of interest, and mentions registered dietitians who are uncomfortable with the obvious implications but feel powerless to influence the larger organization.
The author does an excellent job of explaining the difficult balancing acts that lead to stunted and wishy-washy recommendations to “eat less” of and “cut back” on certain foods, while emphasizing that balanced diets have room for everything—“in moderation” of course. Recommendations to eat less meat, for example, upset the powerful lobby of cattlemen and ranchers, not to mention small farmers at the local level. The same goes for eggs, butter, sugar, salt and any other whole food or single ingredient: each one has an interested party whose members not only vote, but make generous cash contributions to political campaigns. In this environment, it’s difficult for public health organizations to produce strong, consistent messages that run the risk of ruffling financial feathers.
And speaking of consistent messages, Nestle details turf wars between the FTC, USDA, and FDA over which agency is responsible for regulating print and TV food advertising, supplement labels, health claims on food packages and more. She devotes time to DSHEA, the Dietary Supplement Health and Education Act, which largely governs the claims that can be made for vitamin, mineral, and herbal supplements and foods that contain them. The act’s stipulations, along with other regulations, explain why these claims are typically either vague (“may help support the immune system”) or so circuitous as to be nearly meaningless (“supportive but not conclusive research shows that eating 1.5 ounces of walnuts per day, as part of a low saturated fat and low cholesterol diet and not resulting in increased caloric intake, may reduce the risk of coronary heart disease”).
Nestle particularly shines in the significant space she devotes to food marketing aimed at young children. She points out that children are often unable to distinguish between commercials and programming, and the ethics are murky when commercials for unhealthy snack foods are aired during popular children’s shows. Much more pervasive and potentially harmful than this low-level tactic are the business arrangement entire school districts have made with food manufacturing conglomerates. Middle and high school students are a tempting and captive audience. Nestle lifts the rug on how soda and snack companies make deals for exclusive “pouring rights” and vending rights across school districts (wherein only their products, without competition, are offered in vending machines and lunch line snack bars). In exchange for unfettered access to this lucrative market for their products, they sponsor events and supply cash-strapped schools with computers, AV equipment, sporting equipment, and upgraded facilities. Nestle details how tantalizing these arrangements are to superintendents of school districts with multimillion dollar budget shortfalls.
These aspects of the book make for enlightening— if, at times, dense—reading. However, these important issues come with a hefty dose of nutrition misinformation. Dr. Nestle is part of the old guard, clinging tightly to outdated views on saturated fat, red meat, cholesterol, salt, and fullfat dairy. She seems to have a knee-jerk reliance on the old standard of “eat less, move more” as the key to getting to and maintaining a healthy weight. She makes no mention whatsoever of the different hormonal effects of fat, protein and carbohydrate, nor of the powerful role these play in the regulation of appetite and body fat storage and mobilization.
One point where she does hit the nail on the head, however, is the fact that food companies too often like to “blame the victim.” They tell us that body weight is a matter of personal choice and personal responsibility, thereby absolving themselves of any role their pervasive advertising and well-researched marketing strategies might have in making it harder for the public to make good choices. The truth is, feeding ourselves well is about personal responsibility, but it’s easier to make better choices when we’re not bombarded with advertisements extolling the virtues of soy, vegetable oils, and sugary breakfast cereals.
Food Politics is an important work. Unfortunately, while Nestle lifts up the rug covering back-door deals and “follow-the-money” games that craft nutrition policy and, ultimately, the products we see at the store, she does so while continuously harping on her nutritional bad-boys as if the science were settled as to what causes obesity, heart disease, and other modern ills. As readers of this journal know only too well, the science is far from settled, and more cracks appear daily to crumble the brick wall of the low-fat, low-cholesterol, carb-centric diet. It is disconcerting that someone with a PhD in molecular biology—particularly someone who has such broad influence in the popular media as well as in the classroom—has failed to stay current on the scientific literature.
The author states in the appendix, “The optimal ranges of intake of specific nutrients can be estimated only for populations. Optimal intakes for individuals are difficult to define; people vary in requirements for genetic reasons, and also because diet interacts with other factors that affect the use of nutrients, such as smoking cigarettes, taking medications and being physically active.” (Emphasis in the original.) Despite this, Nestle seems to rely on the now-defunct food pyramid to guide everyone. She refers often to the virtues of the complex carbohydrates, vegetables and fruits that make up the bulk of the pyramid, while using the phrase “top of the pyramid foods” for things like fats, oils and sugars, which she would likely recommend everyone limit, regardless of weight, disease condition, genetic propensity or metabolic status. She pays brief lip service to the need for individualization in dietary planning but the majority of the book shows her to be firmly entrenched in conventional, population-wide recommendations for lowfat, low-cholesterol, and low-calorie diets.
She also says, “Nutrition is a thinking person’s field, requiring critical analysis at every step of learning and interpretation, as well as an unusually high tolerance for ambiguity and uncertainty.” I couldn’t agree more. Unfortunately, Nestle doesn’t seem inclined to engage in critical analysis of the government’s nutrition recommendations of the last half century, nor does she seem to realize that these recommendations are the result of the very industry connivance she so soundly condemns. She is quicker to suggest that people have become more overweight and chronically ill because they’re not following the recommendations, rather than entertain the possibility that those recommendations are flawed.
Nestle should stick to what she does best: calling out both private industry and government agencies for their collusion in crafting toothless legislation that emphasizes personal choice, balance and moderation, while doing everything they can to increase profits and encourage people to buy and eat more. I have no argument with the author on these issues. But if I were an overweight diabetic, I wouldn’t trust her to be my nutritionist. She would no doubt encourage me to eat lots of starchy whole grains, polyunsaturated vegetable oils, and limit my intake of the animal foods that have nourished healthy, robust, physically fit people for thousands of years.
This article appeared in Wise Traditions in Food, Farming and the Healing Arts, the quarterly journal of the Weston A. Price Foundation, Spring 2014.