Food Politics

by Marion Nestle
Oct 22 2013

The 2013 Kass Lecture at Harvard Medical School

I’m giving The 2013 Fae Golden Kass Lecture on November 12 (details about time, place, and registration are below).  The lectureship was created by gifts of the family and friends of Fae Golden Kass to support an annual lecture by a woman in the medical sciences.
Here’s what the Harvard Medical School newsletter has to say about it:

Politics of the Plate

By Susan Karcz

There was a time in the U.S. when grocery store shoppers may not have noticed that nutrition facts labels and lists of ingredients on food packages were sometimes difficult to decipher; or that high-fat, high-sugar foods were frequently marketed to children; or that unsubstantiated health claims often appeared on food packaging.

That time has passed.  Americans have now become more aware of, and concerned about, what’s in their food and where it comes from thanks to the work of Marion Nestle, author of Food Politics: How the Food Industry Influences Nutrition and Health, an acclaimed exposé of the U.S. food industry’s influence on food policy, which was first published in 2002.

Nestle, the Paulette Goddard Professor in the Department of Nutrition, Food Studies and Public Health at New York University, can pinpoint the moment in the early 1990s when she first became aware of the politics of food. She was attending a conference at the National Cancer Institute on how behavioral factors affect cancer risk when a physician gave a presentation on how cigarettes were marketed to children all over the world.

Nestle described her “absolute shock” at seeing images of cigarette advertisements displayed in remote areas of the world and at playgrounds in the U.S. While she had known that cigarettes were marketed to children, she said she never really noticed the full extent of the advertising. That’s when she had the thought that this scrutiny should go further. “We should be doing this for Coca-Cola,” she recalled thinking.

In contrast, as a public health nutritionist in the 1980s and 1990s, Nestle said she remembered speakers at obesity meetings talking about how to encourage mothers to improve their children’s diets, but marketing was never discussed. Nutrition societies and professional organizations were (and still are) sponsored by food companies, she said, but nobody noticed.

“I wrote Food Politics to get people to notice,” Nestle said.

Nestle has done more than get people to notice since then. She has also shaped the public conversation about how politics affects what all of us eat.

Food safety, labeling, ingredients, agribusiness, health claims, obesity, nutritional supplements, marketing practices—Nestle has researched and written about it all. Her work examines scientific and socioeconomic influences on food choice, obesity and food safety, with an emphasis on the role of food marketing.

Nestle’s most recent book is Eat, Drink, Vote: An Illustrated Guide to Food Politics. Her blog, Food Politics, includes a wealth of information on food and nutrition policy.

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To attend:

Nestle will present the 2013 Kass Lecture, titled “Food, Nutrition and Public Policy: Science vs. Politics” for members of the Harvard community in the HMS Walter Amphitheater, TMEC, 4-5 p.m. on Nov. 12. A reception and book signing will follow.  To register, click here.

Oct 21 2013

Reading for this week: Ed Behr’s 50 Foods

Ed Behr.  50 Foods: The Essentials of Good Taste.  Penguin Press, 2013.

 

Just got my copy.  Here’s my blurb for 50 Foods:

Ed Behr’s 50 Foods extols the pleasures of his favorites from anchovies to walnuts, with plenty of handy advice about how to tell the difference between a great pear or cheese and one that’s not so great, and what wines make good foods taste even better.  He knows the ins and outs of delicious food, and you will too after reading this book.

Oct 20 2013

October, Berkeley style

From the cafe at the French Hotel, Berkeley.

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Posted from 35,000 feet over the Sierras.

Oct 19 2013

Food Politics, San Francisco Style

Window, the Marlowe, south of Market.

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Oct 17 2013

Soda consumption up in California

The title of a new study from the California Center for Public Health Advocacy (CCPHA) and the UCLA Center for Health Policy Research says it all:, Still Bubbling Over: California Adolescents Drinking More Soda and Other Sugar-Sweetened Beverages.

Consumption of sodas may be declining among everyone else, but teenagers—the prime target audience—are drinking more.

Health advocates: get to work!

Background information:

Oct 16 2013

Today is World Food Day: Perspectives

The Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) has organized a series of Perspectives on World Food Day.

Mine is titled “A Push for Sustainable Food Systems.”  It’s illustrated with cartoons from Eat, Drink, Vote.

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From my perspective as a public health nutritionist, this year’s theme for World Food Day,Sustainable Food Systems for Food Security and Nutrition, seems especially appropriate.  Food insecurity and obesity are the most important nutrition problems in the world today.  Each affects roughly a billion people.  Each is a consequence of food system inequities.

Most countries produce or import enough food for the needs of their populations, but do not always ensure that it is equitably distributed.  Because many people lack resources to obtain adequate food on a reliable basis, hunger is a matter of politics.  Political conflict, insufficient responses to natural disasters, corrupt institutions, and inequalities in income and education constitute the “root” causes of malnutrition.  It’s not enough to distribute food to hungry people.  Governments should take actions to redress system inequities that lead to hunger in the first place.

Similarly, the causes of obesity go beyond the poor food choices of individuals.  Obesity is one result of an industrialized and unsustainable food system that treats agricultural products as commodities, uses most of these products  to feed animals or produce fuel for automobiles, provides little support to farmers who produce fruits and vegetables, and provides endless incentives for overproduction.

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The result is an overabundant food system dependent on the sales of meat and obesity-promoting snack and beverage products, and on marketing such products to populations in low-income countries. Much evidence confirms that individuals find it difficult to resist food marketing pressures on their own.  If countries are to prevent rising rates of obesity, governments must intervene.

The extent to which governments should be involved in the food choices of individuals is a matter of debate.  Making sure people are fed is one function of government; another is promoting public health.  Because research demonstrates profound effects of food marketing on personal dietary choices, governments can set policies that make healthful choices the easier choices such as promoting fruit and vegetable production and setting limits on marketing practices, not least to reduce health care costs.

Whether the world can continue to produce enough food to meet growing population needs is questionable, but the need for sustainable food systems is not.  Governments must support food systems that provide farmers and workers with a reasonable standard of living, replenish soil nutrients, conserve natural resources, and minimize pollution and greenhouse gases—and promote health.  Governments and corporations must go beyond perceptions of food as a fungible commodity to understand food as an essential source of life, and firmly link agricultural policies to those for health, labor, and the environment. If politicians cannot commit to policies to reverse global warming, then ordinary citizens will have to take action.  And they are rising to the occasion, as exemplified by today’s burgeoning food movement.

Oct 14 2013

Annals of Nutrition Science: Coca-Cola 1; NHANES 0

I got called by a couple of reporters asking for comment on a paper just published in PLoS One, an online, open-access—and highly respected (at least until now)—medical journal.

The paper examines the validity of calorie-intake estimations obtained from the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey (NHANES) from 1971 to 2010 (click on Download to see the entire paper).

Its “shocking” conclusion: people underreport calorie intake on surveys.

My first comment to reporters: duh.

The authors present—-as if it were a bombshell—-something that has been known for years: people underreport food intake, usually by a third or more, and obese respondents underreport even more.   The study quantifies the degree of underreporting and comes to conclusions no different from those reported for decades.

Question #1: Why would anyone do a study like this?  Answer:  Look who sponsored it: Coca-Cola!

Question #2: Why would Coca-Cola want to fund a study to cast doubt on information derived from NHANES:  See the Abstract:

The confluence of these results and other methodological limitations suggest that the ability to estimate population trends in caloric intake and generate empirically supported public policy relevant to diet-health relationships from U.S. nutritional surveillance is extremely limited.

And see the paper’s conclusion:

As such, there are no valid population-level data to support speculations regarding trends in caloric consumption and the etiology of the obesity epidemic.

Got that?  If data from NHANES are not valid, then studies showing a correlation between sodas and obesity are not valid, and recommendations to drink less soda are unjustified.

This study, then, is a classic example of why food industry sponsorship of nutrition research is so pernicious.  Coca-Cola is systematically recruiting sympathetic nutrition researchers to cast doubt on science linking soda consumption to health problems.

Question #3: Why would a prestigious journal like PLoS One publish something like this?  The science in this article passed peer review.  Evidently nobody considered that politics might have something to do with the design of the study and its conclusions.

I’m guessing that PLoS One editors have become complacent.  The journal just came up smelling like roses in a Science Magazine sting operation examining the quality of peer review in open-access scientific journals.  The author sent an evidently false paper to hundreds of such journals.  Of 106 that said they did peer review, 70% accepted the paper.  But PLoS One turned it down for the right reasons.

If you think that science has nothing to do with politics, Coca-Cola vs. NHANES is a good reason to reconsider.

Oct 11 2013

Annals of public speaking: Apologies to the Newark Museum for my missed lecture

My apologies to the Newark Museum and to anyone who came to my scheduled talk last night.

I missed my lecture for the standard excuse: bad traffic karma.  Very bad.

Even though rush hour traffic through the Holland Tunnel was horrendous, I would have made it on time if the taxi driver had not decided to sneak through the last red light before entering the approach to the skyway in New Jersey.

He was caught, pulled over and—alas for both of us—found to be driving with a suspended license.

So there we were, stuck along the side of a walled highway, with no escape possible.

I explained my plight to the arresting officer, but got no sympathy.

I felt sorry for the driver but even sorrier for the people waiting for me to show up.

I’m disappointed not to get to the museum (I worked hard on that talk).  And the museum looks like a wonderful place to visit.

 

I’m hoping my lecture gets rescheduled.  If it does, I promise to take the PATH train.

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