Reading Marion Nestle's Food Politics will make you feel like a speck in a universe of giants. Corporations alternately battle and collude with the United States government in chapter after chapter, spending billions of dollars to influence what the consumer chooses to put in their mouth. This is part of Lifehacker's book review series. Not every life hack can be summed up in a blog post, so we've decided to review some of our favourite life-changing books for deeper dives into life's most important topics.
Marion Nestle knows her food, and she knows her politics. Nestle (no relation to Nestlé) is a professor of nutrition, food sciences and public health at New York University, and in the 1980s she was a senior nutrition policy adviser in the US Department of Health and Human Services and editor of the 1988 Surgeon General's Report on Nutrition and Health.
In this book, Nestle follows the money. She methodically exposes the web of connections between food companies, the US government that is supposed to regulate them and a wide-ranging cast of supporting characters like school boards, scientists, news organisations and dietitians. (It focuses on the American food industry, but is an interesting and not irrelevant read for Australians.) In most cases, she writes, everybody involved is well-meaning: Companies are just trying to sell their products, nutrition researchers want to avoid demonising food and US government agencies are just trying to do their job without pissing off the Congress members who control their operations and funding. Almost everything documented in this book is legal and arguably ethical — but as a result, public health often falls by the wayside.
Who This Book Is For
This book is for anybody who wants to have an informed opinion on the food system. We're all cynical these days, but most of us just shrug and say corporations are behind everything. And in the next breath, we'll insist that we're impervious to their influence.
But Nestle calls us out on that. Two weeks before the book hit shelves, she says, Amazon reviews started to pop up calling her a "food nanny" who forgot "a not-so-little thing called WILL POWER!" They seemed to be the products of a public relations campaign, and Nestle demonstrates in the book, over and over again, how the food industry benefits from the fiction that it has no influence over our choices. Here's how she sums it up:
We select diets in a marketing environment in which billions of dollars are spent to convince us that nutrition advice is so confusing, and eating healthfully so impossibly difficult, that there is no point in bothering to eat less of one or another food product or category.
Nestle documents how this confusion over nutrition is partly created by, and partly a reaction to, lobbying and other moves by the food industry. Her 500-page tome, published in 2002, is dated but still very relevant to our world.
Michael Pollan writes, in a foreword to the 10-year anniversary edition, that Food Politics was a major influence on his writing The Omnivore's Dilemma. "The book you hold," he says, "is one of the founding documents of the movement to reform the American food system."
What You'll Get
You'll get a thorough education in the US food system, circa 2002, and details from the last few decades of history on how it got that way. I read this book years ago, and recently revisited the anniversary edition to see what's changed. The text is so packed with stories and statistics that Nestle chose not to update it directly, but to treat it as a history book and tack on a 38-page afterword that catches you up to 2013.
The main section of the book has five parts:
- Undermining Dietary Advice, about how the food industry influences US government dietary guidelines. Food companies politely make sure that the people writing the guidelines are aware of research showing the benefits of their products. They also have, historically, launched huge campaigns against guidelines that portrayed their products in unfavourable ways. Nestle writes that when she arrived in Washington to begin working on the Surgeon General's report, she was advised not to write that people should eat less of anything, especially meat, even if that's what the research showed. A report with "eat less" recommendations, she was told, would not survive politically, and would never be published.
- Working the System, about the food industry's tactics in other areas. This includes how government lobbying works, and the circular system where the USDA requires food industries to pay the government to market their products. Think of the "Got Milk" campaign. Since these groups are sometimes indistinguishable from lobbying groups, the government is essentially lobbying itself. This section also includes industry's funding of nutrition professionals' activities. She quotes from a 1978 industry guide (yes, she is literally reading us pages from their playbook) which says this about research:
[recruiting nutrition experts] is most effectively done by identifying the leading experts...and hiring them as consultants or advisors, or giving them research grants and the like. This activity requires a modicum of finesse; it must not be too blatant, for the experts themselves must not recognise that they have lost their objectivity and freedom of action.
- Exploiting Kids, Corrupting Schools is just what it sounds like: The industry's strategies on advertising to children, and the ways that big soft drink companies fund schools to pad their own pockets at the expense of kids' sugar intake.
- Deregulating Dietary Supplements steps away from food to talk about vitamins, herbal pills and other drug-like items that are regulated, sorta-kinda, as food. There's a full timeline of how America's current supplement regulation mess was essentially created by the supplement industry. The burden of policing supplements falls on the FDA, and its power has been deliberately weakened by a series of laws over the years.
- Inventing Techno-Foods goes into the history of fortified foods — think of the added nutrients in every loaf of white bread — and functional foods that make health claims. There's also a timeline of the decades-long attempt to make Olestra happen.
Aside from that, the book has an introduction describing how the food industry discourages "eat less" advice in favour of anything that skews you toward eating more, and a conclusion on the politics of food choice. There is also an appendix giving the facts on hot-button issues in nutrition research.
One Trick You'll Take Away
This book isn't so much full of life hacks as it is a treasure trove of explanations for some of the weird things in the food landscape. There's a table in the conclusion that makes for a pretty good summary of what the book is about. For each of the main messages of the 2000 dietary guidelines, Nestle summarises the political and logistical dilemma that led to its precise wording.
For example, next to "Let the [Food] Pyramid guide your food choices", she explains: "State 'eat less' messages explicitly, and provoke political opposition, or say that there are no good or bad foods, and confuse the public." An earlier chapter detailed how the pyramid itself was a compromise between these concerns. Every phrase in the guidelines, it seems, was carefully worded after weeks or years of debate. Nestle unpicks those seams to show us what the guidelines are really made of.
We get that the food industry's fights and back-room deals exist, but it's hard to grasp their extent. Nestle shows us that food companies' influence goes way beyond airing a few commercials.
When I first read this book I expected a simple story, playing out in the modern era, with clear heroes and villains. The biggest surprise was seeing how complex the situation is, and how far back its story arcs go. You can't read this and conclude that there's a simple solution to America's food problems, say eliminating farm subsidies or mandating nutrition classes for kids.
Nestle suggests some solutions, but they're the kinds of things that you would expect from a "food nanny". She's in favour of heavy regulations on advertising to children and on food labelling in general. She likes soft drink taxes like the one that just passed in Philadelphia and size caps like the one that failed in New York a few years ago. From her point of view, big industries and government created an "eat more" environment, so only government is in a role to reverse the tide. She may be right, but taxes and limits on unhealthy foods sometimes feel like they're punishing consumers for wanting a snack.
Nestle also has a very old-school approach to what a correct diet really should be. There honestly are controversies about whether saturated fat and cholesterol are as bad as we used to think. Even in recent years, she hasn't rejected the old thinking. She's not oblivious to new evidence, and in fact she posts about it very thoughtfully on her blog. For example, she points out that the evidence in favour of dropping the cholesterol limit from the US Dietary Guidelines comes from studies funded by the Egg Board. So I trust her thought process even though I'm sometimes sceptical of her conclusions. And for that, her perspective is an excellent one to read.
Since food politics is now just another beat for reporters and bloggers to follow, you can also read the work of the many people Nestle has influenced. Besides Michael Pollan, other good sources of dirt on the politics of food are Tom Philpott (now at Mother Jones) and websites like Civil Eats and the Food and Environment Reporting Network. Consider Food Politics your historical on-ramp.