The Paradox of Plenty: Marion Nestle’s “Food Politics”


If you’re older than I am, you might remember an incident that took place in 1981, during the early days of the Reagan administration.  Parents were complaining that their children’s federally funded school lunches, often poor children’s only full meal of the day, weren’t nutritious enough.  In fact, few lunches contained any vegetables at all.  The administration’s infamous response was to reclassify tomatoes, botanically a fruit, so that the ketchup served with kids’ soggy French fries would be considered a vegetable.

In Food Politics: How the Food Industry Influences Nutrition and Health (2002), Marion Nestle, a leading nutritionist and then-chair of the NYU department of nutrition, food science, and public health, shows that calling ketchup a vegetable is just the tip of the regulatory iceberg.  The book is a thorough and often shocking review of the historically cozy relationship between the food industry and the US government, and how that relationship has affected the food regulations (and deregulation) that determine the quality and the marketing of the food we eat.  It’s the sort of damning indictment that might be hard to believe if it weren’t coming from an industry professional who has witnessed this interplay firsthand.  Nestle (no relation to the company) was working for the Public Health Service during the Reagan administration, and managed the editorial production of the Surgeon General’s Report on Nutrition and Health in 1986. She also was part of drafting the US Department of Health and Human Services’ Dietary Guidelines in 1995.  In both the Introduction and in Chapter 2, “Politics Versus Science: Opposing the Food Pyramid, 1991-1992,” she details the lengths to which the federal government went to accommodate the food industry’s concerns:

My first day on the job, I was given the rules: No matter what the research indicated, the report could not recommend “eat less meat” as a way to reduce intake of saturated fat, nor could it suggest restrictions on intake of any other category of food.  In the industry-friendly climate of the Reagan administration, the producers of foods that might be affected by such advice would complain to their beneficiaries in Congress, and the report would never be published…  “Eat less sugar” sent sugar producers right to Congress, but that industry could live with “choose a diet moderate in sugar.” (3)

This thread runs through the fabric of the entire book.  Part One, “Undermining Dietary Advice,” deals with the history of nutritional advice, as offered by the federal government since 1900, and the ways in which it has been influenced by the food industry.  It’s a fascinating history:  in 1900, after all, the biggest child health problem in the US was malnutrition, and today it is obesity.  Dr. Nestle examines the shift in nutritional advice from “eat more” to “eat less,” which brings her to the economics of profitability in the food industry. 

As any astute reader of Adam Smith or Karl Marx can tell you, the crucial force in any capitalist economy is growth.  No industry can stand still—that’s not how the market works.  You have to keep growing, constantly, or you die, because who’s going to invest in a company or an industry that’s not growing?  So every industry is always seeking out new markets, new products to sell, and new ways to keep expanding.  The problem with the food industry, then, is that once everyone (or at least everyone who has the money to buy food) has been fed, growth hits a limit.  People can only eat so much food every day; after that limit is reached, the growth of food sales is pretty much pegged to population growth.  Therefore,

In a competitive food marketplace food companies must satisfy stockholders by encouraging more people to eat more of their products.  They seek new audiences among children, among members of minority groups, or internationally.  They expand sales to existing as well as new audiences through advertising but also by developing new products designed to respond to consumer “demands”.  In recent years, they have embraced a new strategy: increasing the sizes of food portions.  (20)

This strategy allows the major producers of food products, factory farmers of corn, wheat and soy, the meat industry, and related producers, to continue producing more food than is needed in order to maintain profitable growth.  Instead, we are offered quadruple-decker hamburgers with Supersized fries and 20-ounce Cokes—regardless of the effects they might have on our health.  And if government regulatory agencies are in a position to warn consumers of the dangers of such increased consumption of unhealthy foods—or even to tell consumers that these foods are unhealthy—the food industry does whatever must be done to mute that message.

Part of that silencing is done by exercising control over the nutritional advice offered by the government.   Dr. Nestle analyzes what advice is given and why, using the example of the controversy over the Food Pyramid, and offers the reader tools for deconstructing and critically reading nutritional advice.  But how exactly does the food industry exercise that control?  Part Two, “Working the System,” gives the reader a rundown on how the system of Congressional lobbying works—always an eye-opener for the uninitiated—and shows the legal and illegal ways in which food industry lobbying have influenced federal food policies.  A few of the tactics discussed include “arranging campaign contributions, staging media events, organizing public demonstrations, harassing critics, and encouraging lawsuits.”  (95)

An example discussed in detail is the Nestlé Corporation’s public relations campaign promoting infant formula over breastfeeding:

The company designed that campaign to counteract antiformula activism and to convince government officials and health professionals to accept its typical marketing practices—even in developing countries where use of infant formula can do more harm than good.  To understand the larger significance of this campaign, we need to start with three undeniable premises: (1) breast milk is superior to any other food for infants, (2) nearly all mothers are fully capable of breast-feeding, and (3) even the slightest effort to promote use of formula undermines their ability to breast-feed.  (145)

In the 1930s, producers of infant formula began aggressively marketing their products in developing nations: distributing samples in maternity hospitals, sending white-uniformed “milk nurses” to villages, and even convincing health workers to promote it to new mothers.  By the 1970s, it had become undeniably clear that infant mortality rates increased in countries where breastfeeding was discouraged in favor of formula.  The problem is that if you don’t have reliable access to clean water, the ability to refrigerate the formula, and enough money to pay for a supply of formula, bottles and nipples, the risk of bacterial contamination is very high—and unlike breast milk, infant formula does not boost babies’ immunity to harmful microbes (146).  Yet these formulas are still being marketed to populations of poor and often illiterate women who don’t have the resources to use it correctly. 

In the 1970s, activists around the globe began to protest these marketing practices.  The most successful attempt was a 1977 international boycott of Nestlé, the Swiss corporation which controlled 49% of the international formula market.  Churches, women’s groups, unions and students joined in, and Nestlé took a huge sales hit.  So it kicked off a massive PR campaign to regain its image—and promote its product—that remains in full force today.  To list just a few of its tactics: It began meeting with activists.  It released a pro-formula film to counter the documentaries produced by its opponents.  It commissioned favorable magazine articles, pressured a TV station in the Philippines not to run an unfavorable program, threatened lawsuits, and promoted its own version of the controversy.  Most recently, and most sickeningly, in 2000 Nestlé began exploiting the AIDS epidemic in Africa to promote its products, arguing that avoiding breastfeeding would help to prevent transmission of the virus from mothers to children.

Other examples discussed in detail include the 1994 “McLibel” case, in which McDonald’s spent over $15 million in legal fees to silence two London Greenpeace activists by suing them for libel. 

The following chapters detail the subtle ways in which food corporations influence nutritionists and medical professionals through corporate sponsorship of research and conferences.  She also looks at the ties between corporations and nonprofit groups often assumed to be neutral: for example, the American Heart Association’s ties with Kellogg’s.  Part Three looks at the question of branding, advertising and consumerism in the public schools, focusing on issues like mandatory viewing of advertisements (that’s right, remember Channel One?) and school “pouring rights” contracts with companies like Coke and Pepsi.    Part Four devotes three chapters to the deregulation of the dietary supplement industry, and looks at the legality of health claims made by food and supplement manufacturers.  I was shocked to find out the extent to which the Dietary Supplement Health and Education Act of 1994 (DSHEA) deregulated the supplement industry: it deprived the FDA of almost all of its power to regulate the claims made on supplement labels, marking a return to what Dr. Nestle calls the “days of brazen quackery.”  (233)

Part Five examines food fortification and synthetically produced ‘techno-foods’ using the example of olestra (sucrose polyester), a fat substitute derived from soy that was introduced into snack foods in the late 1990s.  It was calorie-free, and I distinctly remember mocking its commercials as a teenager: they’d show some yummy-looking snacks with healthy, happy people eating them, and then go into a happy-people-snacking montage while a low voice read a comically long warning about how some consumers might experience explosive diarrhea and anal leakage.  Yum, now that’s good eats.  In fact, the Center for Science in the Public Interest, with which Dr. Nestle is affiliated, found that when research was done by scientists not affiliated with olestra’s producer, Proctor & Gamble, it was found that approximately 30% of people who ate olestra had gastrointestinal problems.  (343)  It also blocked the gut’s intake of vitamins A, D, E and K, putting regular consumers at greater risk of health complications.  The FDA still approved it in 1996, and it was marketed as a ‘healthy alternative,’ although the junk food which contained it was still, you guessed it, junk food. 

Dr. Nestle concludes the section by pointing out what should be the obvious, quoting a colleague who argues that

if we view foods simply as containers of nutrients or curative substances, we encourage manufacturers to think of more ways to invent more new products to meet some perceived health need.  She argues that foods should be appreciated for the richness and complexity of their taste and cultural context, as well as for their nutritional aspects.  She concludes, “eating healthfully is neither complicated, nor time-consuming, no punishing.  And we don’t need any more new products to do it.” (356)

Finally, the conclusion offers Dr. Nestle’s suggestions for building a sensible, democratic and nutritionally sound approach to federal food regulation, and some options for parents and consumers who want to take action against the food industry.  This is an amazingly comprehensive and useful section: if you don’t read the whole book (and I recommend that you do), at least read the conclusion.  It contains a concise summary of food manufacturers’ claims:

·         All foods can be part of healthful diets (especially theirs). 

·         Advocacy for more healthful food choices is irrational (if it suggests eating less of their products).  

·         Government intervention in dietary choice is unnecessary, undesirable, and incompatible with democratic institutions (unless it protects and promotes their products).  (359)

Indeed, this section, in summarizing the book’s arguments, lays waste to corporate appeals to free-market ideology, showing how food manufacturers view government intervention as a tool to promote their industries while at the same time denouncing as “Big Brother totalitarianism” any efforts to promote public health by encouraging consumers not to eat that 2000-calorie Burger King Quad Stacker.  It also looks at the ways in which class position influences eating habits through economic, social and psychological factors, and examines the environments in which people make choices about the food they eat.

This book really illustrates the inherent contradictions between the way our government is set up and its stated aims.  For example, she points out that the two goals of the USDA are “to promote agribusiness and to advise the public about diet and health” (368), a direct conflict of interest.  The system is meant to govern, to have the best interests of the public at heart.  But those interests are directly opposed to the best interests of the food industry, and guess who has more lobbyists and more politicians in their pockets?

Nestle offers some practical measures, such as democratic controls to promote the neutrality of nutrition professionals and federal dietary advice, and urges health professionals to resist the corporatization of their profession.  She also suggests taxing unhealthy products like soda for a miniscule amount—less than a penny per drink—and using the money to fund public health initiatives.  She ends the book by urging consumers to resist commercialism and “vote with their forks” by supporting the Slow Food movement and other local food initiatives that bring people fresh, healthy, real food—a position regular readers of this blog will know that I support.

If I were President (unlikely), I would appoint Marion Nestle Secretary of Agriculture.  While her suggestions reform rather than rebuild the current broken system, they are… well, sensible, and useful, and largely attainable in the long run.  They show just how far the current system has strayed from the potential it has to make and enforce policy that actually feeds and nourishes people.  However, in my opinion, the greatest strength of this book is that it arms its readers with the tools we need to look critically at the food we are served.  By exposing the machinations of industry and government, Nestle shows us why nutrition advice is so confusing, how to read between the lines when you’re bombarded with advertising, and how to make intelligent decisions about what to eat.  In a society flooded with unhealthy fake food and equally unhealthy lies about its effects, this book is a powerful tool.

Food Politics, which was published in 2002, seems about due for a second edition—it would be great to see the sins of the current Bush administration reviewed in this level of detail.  Even as it stands, though, this book is required reading for anyone who wants to understand the workings of food policy and corporate power. 


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11 Responses to “The Paradox of Plenty: Marion Nestle’s “Food Politics””

  1. CandyLite News Says:


  2. onie Says:

    jes like what monsanto did in indonesia…

  3. Becks Says:

    I just finished reading this book last week. It was a great read – very educating but also very scary.

    If you haven’t already, you should check out her blog, What to Eat:

  4. Naveen Says:

    Great Review… you should publish it somewhere. What steps can be taken to implement the reforms she suggests? Democratic control of FDA would never be possible under the current system. I’m also unsure if we should support taxes on unhealthy foods. I don’t support sales taxes on consumer goods at all, because it is always passed on to the consumer and provides no real incentive for companies to disengage.

  5. jcleffie Says:

    I totally agree with Naveen in saying that we shouldn’t support taxes on unhealthy food. It is a regressive tax as he says. Maybe tax companies that produce unhealthy foods? There are always problems with trying to influence things as consumers. Sarah and I are supporters of the slow food movement. But we spend an inordinate amount of our incomes on food. Despite our complaints our incomes are above the median (a sign of the sad state of affairs in this country) and we don’t have children. Most people would find it difficult to shop the Headhouse market on a weekly basis. We sacrifice to do it. But what if you do if you don’t have the income to do slow food regularly but a mega market with cheaper, albeit less healthy, food is down the street.

    I really find the her illustration of the contradictory goals of the FDA really powerful. The conflict between profit and the well being of most people is a thread that runs though our society but it is so stark and scandalous when we talk about food.

    I also second the motion to shop the review around. I think it would be published.

  6. therealpotato Says:

    I should clarify that the tax she’s proposing is a fraction of a penny– enough not to impact food prices for consumers, but enough to accrue into a significant amount, kind of like the Superman III/Office Space scheme. The idea is not to deter purchasers but to fund public health initiatives. That said, I would of course rather see the food producers get taxed (rather than the massive subsidies they now receive).

    The real questions are (1) can these reforms be implemented under the current system, and (2) if not, what needs to happen to win even moderate reforms. It’s really interesting to see scientists and food professionals who are not socialists or activists start to draw radical conclusions based on their experiences within their industries.

  7. Amit Says:

    Excellent review Sarah. I’ll put this book on my reading list.

    I think that the way economic theories and models work today will need to undergo some modification by internalizing the currently externalized costs, that we as tax-payers end up paying. I haven’t studied economics, so don’t know how feasible this is, or how it’ll happen, but it seems to make sense. Something along the lines of The Ecology of Commerce (Paul Hawken) – I call it green economics. 🙂 🙂

    When I came to the US, finding out about the food here was shocking!! The (lack of) knowledge and relationship with food was in sharp contrast to India. Of course this was more than 10 years ago, and now Lays potato chips are ubiquitous in small shops in villages.

  8. therealpotato Says:

    Thanks, Amit!

    I think I need to check this book out! Michael Pollan also talks about that in The Omnivore’s Dilemma— the idea that cheap food simply externalizes its costs onto society. In other words, a loaf of bread from Wal-Mart might be cheaper than one from a local bakery, but you pay for it with your health, the deterioration of your environment, the depression of wages and the Wal-Martization of your town, etc.

    Of course, the problem is that local/organic foods whose true cost is reflected in their retail pricing are out of the reach of most working people. Joe and I sacrifice other things to buy good food because it’s important to us, but there have been plenty of times when that hasn’t been an option for us. Regressive pricing is just going to penalize the people who can least afford it. Which is why I’d like to see an end to the system of corporate subsidies! But I don’t think we’ll ever see corporations forced to reckon with the true costs of their actions within a capitalist society…

    Interesting point about Indian food culture. But does the availability of mass-produced junk food mean necessarily mean that people lose their food culture? Italy, for example, has access to all of the processed junk food it wants. But it’s also the birthplace of the Slow Food concept. People there have organized on a grassroots level to hold onto their food traditions, and have done so quite successfully.

    I would really, really love to investigate this question in person in Italy and India… *sigh* Anybody giving out grants for that?

  9. Amit Says:

    Sarah, I didn’t spend enough time researching the Indian food habits last time I was there, but the Lays chips at all the small shops along the highway between Delhi and Jaipur struck out.

    From what I’ve read though, people are definitely eating out more often than when I was growing up. There has been some resistance to fast-food joints (by farmers and right-wing people) but not enough to make an impact. I’ve also read that obesity is on the rise in India, and that’s a good indicator that healthy eating habits are somewhat on the decline…

    But yes, it’s difficult to say what the complete picture is. I’m sure there are pockets of resistance similar to Slow Food movement, and I’ve also seen Navdanya starting to promote healthier and organic foods. So there’s hope. 🙂

  10. Marion Nestle on Food Allergies « The Real Potato. Says:

    […] on Nestle’s work here and here. Posted in food, food allergies, food politics, […]

  11. Playing It COOL: Country of Origin Labeling and Food Safety « The Real Potato. Says:

    […] a thorough and alarmingly frank review of this history, see Marion Nestle, Food Politics, or read my review for a […]

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