Food Politics

by Marion Nestle
Sep 4 2019

General Mills ad: Nutritionism in action

Nutritionism is a term coined by the Australian sociologist, Gyorgy Scrinis, and popularized by Michael Pollan.  It means reducing the value of a food to its content of specific nutrients.

This General Mills cereal advertisement is a perfect illustration of how nutritionism works.

Here is one of the six examples:

Chocolate Chex has more iron than black beans?

This may be a true statement, but it is misleading.

What General Mills is not saying is:

  • Whether  iron is absorbed from Chocolate Chex as efficiently as it is from black beans.
  • What nutrients are in black beans that do not appear in Chocolate Chex.
  • How much sugar Chocolate Chex provides as compared to black beans.
  • Which of these foods is better for your health.

Hence: Nutritionism.

Sep 3 2019

For the record: I am an omnivore

My Twitter feed over the Labor Day weekend was full of messages like this one:

It took me a while to figure out what they were talking about, but eventually I was sent a link to a story in Vice about people who became ill on vegan diets. The article quotes me:

“Most healthy people should be able to adapt to an all-plant diet,” says Marion Nestle, nutritionist, professor, and James Beard Award-winning author. She emphasizes eating a “variety of plant food sources, taking in enough calories to maintain a healthy weight, and finding a good source of vitamin B12.”

The article describes the health problems reported by some followers of vegan diets.  It quotes me again:

Nestle notes these problems are more associated with “starvation” than a standard plant-based diet, which “should not cause people to lose weight or have any of those issues.” However, Nestle adds that a diet high in fibrous plants can take time to adapt to, and people who have been advised to eat a low-fiber diet “will have problems eating a wide enough variety of plant foods to meet nutrient needs.” In other words, many of these influencers may be masking disordered eating habits that are unsustainable.

So, in answer to the tweets:

  • I am an omnivore.
  • I do not endorse vegan or any other kind of diet.
  • I believe that many widely different dietary patterns can support good health.
  • It is possible, but not always easy, to eat healthfully on a vegan diet.

Healthy diets generally contain a wide variety of relatively unprocessed foods in adequate but not excessive amounts.

There are lots of good ways of doing this.  Enjoy!

Sep 2 2019

Have a happy, thoughtful, appreciative Labor Day

I particularly like this poster celebrating Labor Day in 2014.

Let’s honor, protect, and pay the people who harvest our vegetables, slaughter our meat, and prepare our food.

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Aug 30 2019

Weekend reading and viewing: What the Democratic candidates have to say about food and agriculture

The New York Times carried a plea this week for more attention to food and nutrition policy from presidential candidates.

Civil Eats is tracking what they are saying.

So is Jerry Hagstrom, who has given permission to re-post these links from his Hagstrom Report, a daily newsletter about “agriculture news as it happens,” to which I gratefully subscribe (the Washington Post just ran a story about him).

Hagstrom collected agricultural position statements posted by candidates in Iowa.

Joe Biden — The Biden Plan for Rural America
Pete Buttigieg — A Commitment to America’s Heartland: Unleashing the Potential of Rural America
— Securing a Healthy Future for Rural America
John Delaney — Heartland Fair Deal
Kirsten Gillibrand — Rebuilding Rural America for Our Future
Kamala Harris (video) — Kamala Harris answers question on Rural America, July 4, 2019, Indianola, Iowa
Amy Klobuchar — Plan from the Heartland: Strengthening our Agricultural and Rural Communities
Tim Ryan — Improving Our Agriculture and Food System
Bernie Sanders — Revitalizing Rural America
Elizabeth Warren — My Plan to Invest in Rural America
— The Farm Economy
Donald Trump — Land and Agriculture: President Donald J. Trump Achievements

Videos of all the “soapbox” speeches, In alphabetical order

Sen. Michael Bennet, D-Colo.
Former Vice President Joe Biden
Sen. Cory Booker, D-N.J.
Montana Gov. Steve Bullock
South Bend, Ind., Mayor Pete Buttigieg
Former Housing and Urban Development Secretary Julián Castro
New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio
Former Rep. John Delaney, D-Md.
Rep. Tulsi Gabbard, D-Hawaii
Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, D-N.Y.
Sen. Kamala Harris, D-Calif.
Former Colorado Gov. John HickenlooperWithdrew from race Thursday
Washington Gov. Jay Inslee
Sen. Amy Klobuchar, D-Minn.
Rep. Seth Moulton, D-Mass.
Rep. Tim Ryan, D-Ohio
Sen. Bernie Sanders, D-Vt.
Former Rep. Joe Sestak, D-Pa.
Hedge fund manager and activist Tom Steyer
Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass.
Former Massachusetts Gov. Bill Weld, Republican
Author Marianne Williamson
Entrepreneur Andrew Yang

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Aug 29 2019

José Andres on the American food system

I ran across an interview with the chef José Andres in Departures, the luxury goods magazine.  Sprinkled among the ads for things I can’t imagine ever buying is a Q and A with Andres who, in addition to running a lot of restaurants, founded World Central Kitchen to feed people hit by disasters.

Adam Sachs asked the questions.  Here is the one that got my attention.

Q:   If you could change one thing in the American food system, what would it be?

JA:   First, we need to diversify the crops the government supports through subsidies.  We need to help small farmers across America grow more fruit, more vegetables.  And then put those fruits and vegetables into the school-lunch program and hire more veterans and train them to be cooks and work in those school kitchens, one rural school at a time, so that we are employing our veterans, giving our children better nutrition, which leads to better studies and a better future in the process.  Right now we are investing in subsidies that go to just a few grains like corn.  It’s making America unhealthy, and it’s making America less safe, because without a diversity of crops one day we will have a big problem with our food production.

The entire interview is worth a read.

I’m an Andres fan.

Aug 28 2019

Eric Schlosser on the meat industry’s hypocrisy about immigrants

Eric Schlosser, author of Fast Food Nation, explains in The Atlantic Why It’s Immigrants Who Pack Your Meat.

You really should read the whole thing.  It’s a powerful indictment.  Here are a few excerpts. 

  • The immigration raid last week at seven poultry plants in rural Mississippi was a perfect symbol of the Trump administration’s racism, lies, hypocrisy, and contempt for the poor. It was also a case study in how an industry with a long history of defying the law has managed to shift the blame and punishment onto workers.
  • What Trump has described as an immigrant “invasion” was actually a corporate recruitment drive for poor, vulnerable, undocumented, often desperate workers.
  • The immigrant workers arrested in Mississippi the other day were earning about $12.50 an hour. Adjusted for inflation, during the late 1970s, the wages of meatpacking workers in Iowa and Colorado were about $50 an hour.
  • Over the years, I’ve spent time with countless farmworkers and meatpacking workers who entered the United States without proper documentation. Almost all of them were hardworking and deeply religious. They had taken enormous risks and suffered great hardships on behalf of their families. Today workers like them are the bedrock of our food system. And they are now being scapegoated, hunted down, and terrorized at the direction of a president who inherited about $400 million from his father, watches television all day, and employs undocumented immigrants at his golf resorts.
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Aug 27 2019

Corporations will focus on social values? Really?

The Business Roundtable’s Statement (and see B Corporation Statement below)

The Business Roundtable, an organization of corporations, issued a statement last week—in a two-page advertisement with all the signatures in the Wall Street Journal, no less—that got this New York Times headline: Shareholder Value Is No Longer Everything, Top C.E.O.s Say.

What?  This is some kind of joke, right?

I’ve been arguing for years that the Shareholder Value Movement, which forced corporations to single-mindedly focus on maximizing profits at the expense of every other societal value—attention to the welfare of workers, farm animals, public health, environmental protection—is responsible for just about everything that is wrong with our food system.

Corporations are now saying that they are committing to change that?

The Business Roundtable’s press release says that it is redefining the purpose of corporations to promote an economy that serves all Americans—customers, employees, suppliers, communities, and shareholders.   Here is its website with all the commitment info.

Its statement, signed by nearly 200 corporations, commits them to [with my comments]:

  • Delivering value to our customers [they aren’t already doing this?].
  • Investing in our employees. This starts with compensating them fairly and providing important benefits [this would indeed be a groundbreaking improvement].
  • Dealing fairly and ethically with our suppliers [they weren’t doing this either?].
  • Supporting the communities in which we work [another excellent idea].
  • Generating long-term value for shareholders [isn’t this what they’ve been doing to the detriment of everything else?]

This sounds good, but how do they plan to solve the central dilemma?  How do they intend to pay workers decent wages, improve the communities in which they operate, and stop damaging the environment—and still maximize benefits for shareholders?

No surprise, they don’t say.

Also, as the Times noted,

There was no mention at the Roundtable of curbing executive compensation, a lightning-rod topic when the highest-paid 100 chief executives make 254 times the salary of an employee receiving the median pay at their company. And hardly a week goes by without a major company getting drawn into a contentious political debate. As consumers and employees hold companies to higher ethical standards, big brands increasingly have to defend their positions on worker pay, guns, immigration, President Trump and more.

I looked for food corporations among the signers (sorry if I missed any):

  • Aramark
  • Bayer (it owns Monsanto)
  • Coca-Cola
  • Land O’Lakes
  • PepsiCo
  • Procter & Gamble
  • Walmart

This is a small list.  Where, for example, are Mars, Nestlé, and Unilever?

I see this as flat out public relations, a response to increasing public distrust of corporate America and demands for corporate accountability.

If the signers mean business, let’s see them deal with workers’ wages right away.

Otherwise, I’m not holding my breath

The B Corporation Statement

And here’s more.  Sunday’s New York Times carried this advertisement from Certified B Corporations “meeting the highest standards of verified social and environmental performance, public transparency, and legal accountability to balance profit and purpose.”

The ad is addressed to Business Rountable CEOs.

We are part of a community of Certified B Corporations who are walking the walk of stakeholder capitalism…We operate with a better model of corporate governance—benefit corporate governance—which gives us, and could give you, a way to combat short-termism and the freedom to make decisions to balance profit and purpose.

Among its food company signers are Ben & Jerry’s, Cabot Creamery Cooperative, Danone North America, King Arthur Flour, Sir Kensington’s, Stonyfield Organic, and Stumptown Coffee (there are others, as well).

I read this as a challenge: if the Business Rountable CEOs are serious about ensuring as B Corporations do, that “the purpose of capitalism is to work for everyone and for the long term,” why don’t they start by becoming B Corporations?

Until they do, the Business Roundtable statement is smoke and mirrors, to distract us from the damage the corporations are doing to our society and to our democratic institutions.

Aug 26 2019

Industry-funded study of the week: cherries prevent dementia!

Effect of Montmorency tart cherry juice on cognitive performance in older adults: a randomized controlled trial, Sheau C. Chai,, et al. Food Funct., 2019,10, 4423-4431.

Method: In this randomized controlled trial, 37 adults between the ages of 65–80 with normal cognitive function were recruited and randomly assigned to consume two cups of Montmorency tart cherry juice for 12 weeks.

Results: The within-group analysis showed that the visual sustained attention (p < 0.0001) and spatial working memory (p = 0.06) improved after the 12-week consumption of tart cherry juice compared with corresponding baseline values. Daily tart cherry juice consumption may improve cognitive abilities.

Conclusion: Our study demonstrated that daily intake of Montmorency tart cherry juice may help improve subjective memory and cognitive abilities in older adults as evidenced by increased contentment with memory, improved visual sustained attention and spatial working memory, and reduced movement time and total errors made on new learning tasks in older adults. T

Acknowledgements: The present study was supported by the Cherry Research Committee of the Cherry Marketing Institute, a non-profit organization. Tart cherry concentrates were provided by the Cherry Marketing Institute. Funders had no role in the study design, data collection, data analysis or interpretation, or writing of the manuscript.

Comment: I love cherries—a joy of summer—and wouldn’t it be wonderful if eating them was all you had to do to prevent cognitive decline.  Are cherries better than any other fruit or vegetable for this purpose?  This study did not examine that question but eating a healthy diet is always a good idea.  As for funders having no role, they don’t have to.  The mere fact that they funded this study skews the research question, as much evidence demonstrates (I reviewed this evidence in Unsavory Truth).