Food fighter: Author Marion Nestle

In her latest book on Western food systems, Marion Nestle looks at how how food companies' research practices affect public understanding of nutrition. Marion Nestle

Blueberries are packed with antioxidants, but is their impact on health that much more powerful than, say, some grapes? Is too much time in front of the TV, less exercise and lack of sleep driving childhood obesity?

The answers are no, and yes, partially, but aren’t sugar and processed foods to blame too? As emerita professor of nutrition, food studies and public health at New York University and leading critic of the North American food system Marion Nestle explores in her latest of nine books, Unsavory Truth: How Food Companies Skew the Science of What We Eat, food companies shape the public perception of how foods rank from good to bad – or, in this clickbait day and age, from life-saving to cancer-causing – be it through marketing of ‘super fruits’ or funding research that strategically casts a better light on the soda sector. The point is to look beyond the labels in food aisles and ask more questions of the claims they make.

Growing up, what was your family’s approach to food and nutrition? How did it affect you then, and later on, guide your career focus?

I don’t remember much about my family’s food. We were poor, and the food was basic. My mother had a victory garden during the war and I did love the cherry tomatoes. I didn’t really discover food until I was sent to a summer camp run by a woman who was a fabulous cook. The camp had a large kitchen garden, and she would send us out to pick vegetables for dinner. I have this string bean story I tell all the time. It was my turn to pick vegetables. I picked a few beans from the vine, and then tasted one. A revelation! It was warm from the July sun, crisp and sweet. Raised on canned vegetables, I had no idea that foods could taste like that. I’ve never lost my taste for freshly picked vegetables.

Realizing the power of food marketing was something that first prompted you to focus on systemic food problems. You still write prolifically about the effects of advertising on our consumption. What do you think should be advertised about different foods and food products?

Food marketing and advertising are not about benefits to consumers; they are about benefits to corporations and shareholders. Food companies are not public health agencies. Their first responsibility is to shareholders. Every food company wants people to buy more of their products, at the highest price they can get away with, regardless of the effects of those products on health. I prefer food companies to stick to taste in their advertising. The minute they talk about health, their advertising becomes misleading.

How do you guide your consumption habits to reflect the systemic changes you wish to see? 

I have no trouble at all following my own dietary advice: include vegetables (and other plant foods), avoid too much junk food, and don’t eat too much. This works for me, as I like vegetables, and leaves plenty of room for eating foods I love. I vote with my fork when I shop for food – farmers’ markets, organics, local and sustainable – to the extent I can. If more people did that, the food system would have to accommodate them.

Marion Nestle

There is an interesting move away from natural diets and toward more packaged and processed foods in developing countries as incomes rise and middle classes grow. How can lessons be shared between countries and regions to combat this?

I don’t see how those of us in industrialized nations can tell people in developing economies what they should be eating, when it’s our companies that are pushing junk foods on those populations. The most effective way we could help would be to stop that kind of marketing at its source. Soda companies, for example, have pledged to spend tens of billions, literally, of dollars on marketing sugary drinks in Asia, India and Africa. Marketing works. Expect obesity, type 2 diabetes and other chronic conditions to follow.

The rate of global hunger is on the rise, with one in every nine people not having enough to eat. How should we reconcile niche problems – within the organic food system, say, or how nutrition facts are presented – with the larger battle against widespread hunger and malnutrition?

I don’t know how to do this, and I don’t know anyone who does. Organizing the thousands of disparate food advocacy organizations – each focused on its own issue – into a large, united force with real political power seems essential to achieve needed changes in food systems, but many barriers must be overcome to make this happen. The people who started these groups don’t want to give up power; the groups compete with each other for funding; members are focused on one issue, not the big picture; and few understand how to use politics to achieve their goals. Hunger is a political problem, not a matter of producing more food.

What parts of the food supply system do you think are doing a particularly good job, and why?

I can only speak for the situation in the U.S., where the movement toward fresh, local, seasonal, organic and sustainable is doing pretty well. It’s still small, but growing. But this is about improving personal food consumption. Food waste has also gained a lot of traction recently, although it is mostly framed as a problem to be solved by individuals, not one that more appropriately needs to be addressed at the production level. Beyond those, the huge societal issues – food insecurity, obesity, environmental impact – have barely been addressed, despite the efforts of many advocacy groups.

If your vision of a better food system – including research and marketing – were in place, can you describe how a grocery store might look?

I’d put all the highly processed foods in a section labeled ‘junk foods.’ I once saw such a sign over the snack foods in a supermarket in a largely Asian community in California. I’d put the healthiest foods at the end caps (ends of aisles), at eye level, and at the cash registers. Supermarkets too are in the business of generating profits for shareholders, and so they design the shopping experience to maximize sales of the most highly profitable items. And guess which ones those are: the junk foods, alas.

What’s driving you forward at the moment?

I am fortunate, privileged, to teach young people passionately interested in food issues and eager to use food to change the world to make it healthier for everyone – poor as well as rich – and for the planet. I want them to understand that advocacy can be effective, and that they can get out there and start advocating for healthier and more sustainable food systems. The future is theirs. If I can help them create the future they want, it’s worth getting up every day to try to do that.

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