Food Politics

by Marion Nestle
Jun 19 2007

Flaxseed Omega-3 Fats

A reader in California writes: Hello, I am reading your book, what to eat, overall I am very much enjoying it, but I have noted a few things that I have to disagree with you on. One in particular regards Flaxseeds as a source for Omega-3 fatty acids…I am well aware that Flaxseeds are a great source of Omega-3 fatty acids, but they also have a very dense husk. My understanding is that if you eat the Flaxseeds in their whole form your digestive system is not able to breakdown the outer casing of the seeds and allow for the absorption of the fatty acids contained inside…You seem to believe that you can absorb the fatty acids in flaxseeds while they are in their whole form and I would love to hear back from you about the basis for your opinion.

My response: The writer is referring to a comment in What to Eat about a cereal said to contain 2,000 milligrams of omega-3 fatty acids per 2-ounce serving. The question is whether any of that is usable. I would assume that the seeds have been broken during processing so that some of their fats can be absorbed, but I am unfamiliar with research on this question. Readers: do you know anything about this? If so, please post.

Jun 18 2007

Foods vs. Supplements

A writer for a women’s magazine asks: If you want to get more of a specific nutrient (lycopene, for example), is it better to take a dietary supplement or to eat foods containing that nutrient? What benefits do you get from eating a whole food that you might miss if you took a supplement instead?

My response: Unless you have been diagnosed with a vitamin or mineral deficiency and need to replenish that nutrient in a great big hurry, it is always better to get nutrients from foods—the way nature intended. I can think of three benefits of whole foods as compared to supplements: (1) you get the full variety of nutrients—vitamins, minerals, antioxidants, etc–in that food, not just the one nutrient in the supplement; (2) the amounts of the various nutrients are balanced so they don’t interfere with each other’s digestion, absorption, or metabolism; and (3) there is no possibility of harm from taking nutrients from foods (OK. Polar bear liver is an exception; its level of vitamin A is toxic). In contrast, high doses of single nutrients not only fail to improve health but also can make things worse, as has been shown in some clinical trials of the effects of beta-carotene, vitamin E, and folic acid, for example, on heart disease or cancer. And foods taste a whole lot better, of course. For more on this, see chapter 37 in What to Eat on “Supplements and Health Food.”

Jun 18 2007


I’m not sure how long the move will take but I’ll be back as soon as everything is up and running.  Farewell to this site.  It’s been fun.  And let’s hope the new site will be even more so!  Thanks for your patience.

Jun 18 2007

Organic Standards: Integrity

Today’s question, from a college professor in California, has to do with maintaining the integrity of the standards established by the USDA’s National Organic Program for defining foods as organic: “It seems to me that the non-organic food industry must love this chipping away at the underlying meaning of “organic”. I’m worried about whether these changes are going to negatively affect the future availability of organic foods in grocery stores — why would people want to pay the premium for organic if it’s not really? My question is: have you written on this topic? Are others who you can refer me to?

Here’s my response: I have indeed written about this topic, and it is an important one. In What to Eat, I discuss the chipping-away-at-organic issues in several places, most specifically in the section on “The Politics of Organics” on pages 42-44 (and see Endnotes for references). Organics are the fastest growing segment of the food industry. Because organic production methods constitute an explicit critique of methods used in conventional industrial agriculture, the producers of conventional foods–along with their friends in the USDA and Congress–would love to weaken the standards to make it cheaper for them to produce and market foods as organic.

The latest USDA proposal (Federal Register, May 15, 2007) is to allow non-organic substitutes to be used in foods certified as organic when organic substances are not available. For example, the USDA wants to allow non-organic beet juice to be used to color products certified as organic when organic beet juice color is not available. Is this a good idea? I doubt it.

Anyone concerned about this issue should be working hard to make sure the organic standards continue to mean that organic foods are really organic and the Certified Organic seal can be trusted. This means expressing your opinion to your congressional representatives, to the USDA, and to the National Organic Standards Board. The Organic Consumers Association is an excellent source of information about this issue and provides plenty of background information for taking action.

Jun 14 2007

Kellogg’s Nutrition Announcement

In an announcement quite similar to one made by Kraft a few years ago, Kellogg today said that it will stop promoting most of its junk foods to children under age 12 (see news release). Here is my comment:

Kellogg has been one of the most active companies in marketing junk foods to children—sugary cereals, Pop-Tarts, and Cheez-Its come to mind (see the chapter on “Foods Just for Kids” in What to Eat). That is why Center for Science in the Public Interest singled Kellogg out as a target for a potential lawsuit. Kellogg responded by taking a good hard look at company practices and agreeing to fix some of the worst. Let’s give the company credit for making impressive promises. But the proof will be in what it actually does. If Kellogg starts to lose sales as a result of the promised changes, the improvements are unlikely to last and the company will find other ways to market its products to kids. I say this because my conversation with a Kellogg official earlier this week was a word-for-word duplicate of one I had with an official of Kraft a few years ago when Kraft announced that it was reformulating its products and would be limiting its marketing to kids. Kraft did indeed make some of its promised changes but as some students of mine demonstrated last year, the company is still actively engaged in marketing junky foods to children (see paper by Lewin et al). I think food companies are in an enormously difficult position on this issue. Even if they want to do the right thing and really care about kids’ health, their primary responsibility is to meet stockholders’ investment expectations. If the reformulated products don’t sell, or if overall sales decline, the companies will be forced to find other ways to generate income. Let’s hope Kellogg is able to do what it promises, and that other companies immediately follow suit.

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Jun 13 2007

Cooking measurements

This question comes from a careful reader of What to Eat: “in Appendix 1 on page 528, you list 1 gram as being equivalent to 1/5 teaspoon, 1 tsp. as equivalent to 5 grams, and 1 tablespoon as equivalent to 15 grams. As grams are a measure of mass, and teaspoons are a measure of volume, I’m sure you realize these equivalencies make no sense. Even if 1 gram of water has a volume of 1/5 of a teaspoon (I believe it does, more or less), you can’t use them as equivalents for any other
substance with a different density…I wouldn’t normally write someone an email about such a small thing, but you obviously value accuracy, so I figured you’d want to know.”

Here’s my answer: You are of course correct for chemists but most readers are unlikely to use grams or milliliters; they use household measures. For cooking purposes, rough measures work well enough so precision isn’t really required. What I hoped to do was to give readers a rough idea of what the measures feel like. Baking is the one place where precision is important but even there a difference in measurement of a gram or milliliter would not matter much. Readers tell me they are put off by discussions of grams and milliliters and are grateful to have a rough sense of what the amounts mean in
practice. By putting the measures in two columns (see Appendix 1), I hoped to indicate how small the differences were between rough and precise measures. This sacrifices precision, of course, but for what I hope is a worthy purpose. Thanks for being such a great reader!

Jun 13 2007

Meal frequency

I’ve just been asked this question: “When it comes to meals, what’s the verdict for health and weight loss: 3 square meals or 6 mini meals throughout the day?” My take on this one: There are two schools of thought. One is that eating frequent small meals keeps you from getting hungry and maintains insulin at a steady level. The other is that the more times a day you eat, the more calories you are likely to take in. When meals were small, the first idea worked pretty well. These days, evidence favors the second interpretation. Calories are what count and most people can’t keep meals and snacks small enough to keep calorie intake under control.

May 29 2007

At last, this site begins

I have been on sabbatical from NYU this semester and am just back from weeks of travel on the west coast to give talks about any number of the food issues I discuss in What to Eat. Everywhere I go, I see how the issues are converging on food as a new social movement. This movement is not organized in any visible way and is composed of many separate movements that have developed independently, among them:

  • The good, clean, fair food movement
  • The Slow Food movement
  • The farm animal welfare movement
  • The community food security movement
  • The organic foods movement
  • The locally grown food movement
  • The anti-marketing-foods-to kids movement, and
  • The school food movement

Separately and together, these movements aim to make all aspects of our food system—from production to consumption–healthier for people and the planet. They derive from the best aspects of the long tradition of American grassroots democracy–of the people, by the people, for the people.

I always try to leave time for questions after my talks, and people often ask me what they could read to learn more about the food movement(s). As it happens, I recently wrote an answer to that question for Publishers Weekly, but the folks there chose not to use it. So here it is.

Three Books That Made a (Food) Revolution*

Once upon a time, most people considered food too common—too quotidian–to be taken seriously as a field of study, let alone as an agent of social change. University departments routinely dissuaded doctoral students and untenured colleagues from wasting time on anything that seemed so trivial as the role of food in culture or commerce. Yes, The Jungle, Upton Sinclair’s muckraking account of the horrors of the Chicago stockyards, spurred the U.S. government to pass food safety laws, but that book was published in 1906 and even though it has been in print ever since, seems like ancient history. A century later, hardly anyone could imagine that books about food would spark a social movement.

But they have. Three books from quite separate genres—cookery, scholarship, and journalism—created a revolution in the way Americans consume, think about, and produce food. These books catapulted food into the mainstream of modern culture and advocacy for social change, and opened doors for scholars as well as journalists to write about the political, commercial, and health aspects of food in modern society. All three of these books were best sellers in their respective fields, still do well, and are widely read and used.

My vote for book #1 goes to Mastering the Art of French Cooking (Knopf, 1961). This book thoroughly overturned my generation’s ideas about food. My own treasured copy is yellowed and spattered from early experiments with bouillabaisse (pretty terrific), soufflés (tricky but worth it) and Hollandaise (never mind). As Laura Shapiro makes clear in her splendid new Julia Child (Penguin Lives series, Viking, 2007), Mastering was a monumental work of research that transformed the entire cookbook genre from being considered “mere” to taking its place as a respected cultural indicator worthy of scholarly investigation and careful preservation. My institution, New York University, now houses more than 20,000 cookbooks and other books about food in its Fales Special Collections Library, where any researcher can peruse them by appointment.

But Mastering was revolutionary in another way. It made American cooks realize how disadvantaged they were when it came to obtaining foods of the quality available in France. Enter, Alice Waters. Her insistence on using nothing but fresh, seasonal ingredients in her Berkeley restaurant, Chez Panisse exposed the inability of our industrialized agricultural system to provide food of the quality she demanded. That how food is produced determines how food tastes on the table is the central theme of the Chez Panisse cookbooks. It also is the rationale for contemporary accounts of the Alice Waters phenomenon such as David Kamp’sThe United States of Arugula (Broadway, 2006) and Thomas McNamee’s Alice Waters and Chez Panisse (Penguin, 2007).

Book #2 is Sidney Mintz’s Sweetness and Power: The Place of Sugar in Modern History (Viking, 1985). This book laid the groundwork for the new academic field of Food Studies. Mintz, an anthropologist, used the cultural history of sugar as an entry point into the analysis of social problems such as the plight of the working classes during the industrial revolution and the development of slavery as an institution. By linking something you might put in tea to the development of major political institutions, Sweetness and Power proved that food was not only a suitable topic for research in the humanities and social sciences, but could make social issues accessible to a wider range of readers. This made it possible to construct academic programs focused on food such as those at Boston University (Gastronomy) and New York University (Food Studies), and at the University of Gastronomy in Bra, Italy.

Book #3 has to be the remarkable best seller, Fast Food Nation (Houghton Mifflin, 2001), the journalist Eric Schlosser’s exposé of the “dark side” of hamburgers and French fries—how the way we produce fast food not only is bad for our health but also damages our economy, workforce, and environment. This book—now a classic–reached a huge audience, continues to be widely assigned on college campuses, and turned masses of readers into food advocates eager to change the current food system into one that is better for everyone, producers as well as eaters.

These three encouraged a new generation of books that have done wonders to promote food advocacy. Michael Pollan’s riveting and engaging Omnivore’s Dilemma (Penguin, 2006) presents a compelling case for transforming our food system into one that is a lot more rational and healthier. Peter Singer and Jim Mason’s The Way We Eat (Rodale, 2006), argues that raising farm animals more humanely will be better for us as well as for cows, chickens, and pigs. That our government’s agricultural policies need a serious overhaul is the point of Dan Imhoff’s Food Fight (University of California Press, 2007). Michele Simon’s Appetite for Profit (Nation Books, 2006) is a how-to manual for opposing the marketing of junk food to children, and Ann Cooper and Lisa Holmes’ Lunch Lessons (Collins, 2006) calls for a revolution in the school lunchroom. Such books provide much cause for optimism that the food system will change, much for the better, and soon.

I would like to think that my own books—Food Politics (University of California Press, 2002), Safe Food (University of California Press, 2003), and now What to Eat (North Point Press, 2006) have contributed to this movement, although I must leave the assessment of their impact to others. But I am proud to be part of this food revolution, which holds so much promise for making our world a better place as well as for improving what we eat for dinner. Pick the issue you most care about and join the movement!

*I borrowed the title of this piece from Bertram Wolfe’sThree Who Made a Revolution, a political biography of the founders of the 1917 Russian Revolution–Lenin, Trotsky, and Stalin. First published in 1948, the book is still in print (Cooper Square, 2001). I list other books I especially like at “10 Books to Read on Food” on Amazon’s Grownup School* site.

And note that Barbara Jo’s Books to Cooks (Vancouver) website lists food books for the socially conscious.

*The site is no longer active, alas, and I can’t find the list.  Try this.