Food Politics: How the Food Industry Influences Nutrition and Healthby Marion Nestle
An accessible and balanced account, Food Politics laid the groundwork for today's food revolution and changed the way we respond to food industry marketing practices. Now, a new introduction and concluding chapter bring us up to date on the key events in that movement. This pathbreaking, prize-winning book helps us understand more clearly than ever before what we eat and why.
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Food PoliticsHow the Food Industry Influences Nutrition and Health
By Marion Nestle
University of CaliforniaCopyright © 2002 Regents of the University of California
All right reserved.
IntroductionThe Food Industry and "Eat More"
This book is about how the food industry influences what we eat and, therefore, our health. That diet affects health is beyond question. The food industry has given us a food supply so plentiful, so varied, so inexpensive, and so devoid of dependence on geography or season that all but the very poorest of Americans can obtain enough energy and nutrients to meet biological needs. Indeed, the U.S. food supply is so abundant that it contains enough to feed everyone in the country nearly twice over-even after exports are considered. The overly abundant food supply, combined with a society so affluent that most people can afford to buy more food than they need, sets the stage for competition. The food industry must compete fiercely for every dollar spent on food, and food companies expend extraordinary resources to develop and market products that will sell, regardless of their effect on nutritional status or waistlines. To satisfy stockholders, food companies must convince people to eat more of their products or to eat their products instead of those of competitors. They do so through advertising and public relations, of course, but also by working tirelessly to convince government officials, nutrition professionals, and the media that their products promote health-or at least do no harm. Much of this work is a virtually invisible part of contemporary culture that attracts only occasional notice.
This book exposes the ways in which food companies use political processes-entirely conventional and nearly always legal-to obtain government and professional support for the sale of their products. Its twofold purpose is to illuminate the extent to which the food industry determines what people eat and to generate much wider discussion of the food industry's marketing methods and use of the political system.
In my 25 years as a nutrition educator, I have found that food industry practices are discussed only rarely. The reasons for this omission are not difficult to understand. Most of us believe that we choose foods for reasons of personal taste, convenience, and cost; we deny that we can be manipulated by advertising or other marketing practices. Nutrition scientists and practitioners typically believe that food companies are genuinely interested in improving health. They think it makes sense to work with the industry to help people improve their diets, and most are outraged by suggestions that food industry sponsorship of research or programs might influence what they do or say. Most food company officials maintain that any food product can be included in a balanced, varied, and moderate diet; they say that their companies are helping to promote good health when they fund the activities of nutrition professionals. Most officials of federal agriculture and health agencies understand that their units are headed by political appointees whose concerns reflect those of the political party in power and whose actions must be acceptable to Congress. Members of Congress, in turn, must be sensitive to the concerns of corporations that help fund their campaigns.
In this political system, the actions of food companies are normal, legal, and thoroughly analogous to the workings of any other major industry-tobacco, for example-in influencing health experts, federal agencies, and Congress. Promoting food raises more complicated issues than promoting tobacco, however, in that food is required for life and causes problems only when consumed inappropriately. As this book will demonstrate, the primary mission of food companies, like that of tobacco companies, is to sell products. Food companies are not health or social service agencies, and nutrition becomes a factor in corporate thinking only when it can help sell food. The ethical choices involved in such thinking are considered all too rarely.
Early in the twentieth century, when the principal causes of death and disability among Americans were infectious diseases related in part to inadequate intake of calories and nutrients, the goals of health officials, nutritionists, and the food industry were identical-to encourage people to eat more of all kinds of food. Throughout that century, improvements in the U.S. economy affected the way we eat in important ways: We obtained access to foods of greater variety, our diets improved, and nutrient deficiencies gradually declined. The principal nutritional problems among Americans shifted to those of overnutrition-eating too much food or too much of certain kinds of food. Overeating causes its own set of health problems; it deranges metabolism, makes people overweight, and increases the likelihood of "chronic" diseases-coronary heart disease, certain cancers, diabetes, hypertension, stroke, and others-that now are leading causes of illness and death in any overfed population.
People may believe that the effects of diet on chronic disease are less important than those of cigarette smoking, but each contributes to about one-fifth of annual deaths in the United States. Addressing cigarette smoking requires only a single change in behavior: Don't smoke. But because people must eat to survive, advice about dietary improvements is much more complicated: Eat this food instead of that food, or eat less. As this book explains, the "eat less" message is at the root of much of the controversy over nutrition advice. It directly conflicts with food industry demands that people eat more of their products. Thus food companies work hard to oppose and undermine "eat less" messages.
I first became aware of the food industry as an influence on government nutrition policies and on the opinions of nutrition experts when I moved to Washington, DC, in 1986 to work for the Public Health Service. My job was to manage the editorial production of the first-and as yet only-Surgeon General's Report on Nutrition and Health, which appeared as a 700-page book in the summer of 1988. This report was an ambitious government effort to summarize the entire body of research linking dietary factors such as fat, saturated fat, cholesterol, salt, sugar, and alcohol to leading chronic diseases. 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.
This scenario was no paranoid fantasy; federal health officials had endured a decade of almost constant congressional interference with their dietary recommendations. As I discuss in Part I, agency officials had learned to avoid such interference by resorting to euphemisms, focusing recommendations on nutrients rather than on the foods that contain them, and giving a positive spin to any restrictive advice about food. Whereas "eat less beef" called the industry to arms, "eat less saturated fat" did not. "Eat less sugar" sent sugar producers right to Congress, but that industry could live with "choose a diet moderate in sugar." When released in 1988, the Surgeon General's Report recommended "choose lean meats" and suggested limitations on sugar intake only for people particularly vulnerable to dental cavities.
Subsequent disputes have only reinforced sensitivities to political expediency when formulating advice about diet and health. Political expediency explains in part why no subsequent Surgeon General's Report has appeared, even though Congress passed a law in 1990 requiring that one be issued biannually. After ten years of working to develop a Surgeon General's Report on Dietary Fat and Health-surely needed to help people understand the endless debates about the relative health consequences of eating saturated, monounsaturated, trans-saturated, and total fat-the government abandoned the project, ostensibly because the science base had become increasingly complex and equivocal. A more compelling reason must have been lack of interest in completing such a report in the election year of 2000. Authoritative recommendations about fat intake would have had to include some "eat less" advice if for no other reason than because fat is so concentrated in calories-it contains 9 calories per gram, compared to 4 each for protein or carbohydrate-and obesity is a major health concern. Because saturated fat and trans-saturated fat raise risks for heart disease, and the principal sources of such fats in American diets are meat, dairy, cooking fats, and fried, fast, and processed foods, "eat less" advice would provoke the producers and sellers of these foods to complain to their friends in Congress.
Since 1988, in my role as chair of an academic department of nutrition, a member of federal advisory committees, a speaker at public and professional meetings, a frequent commentator on nutrition issues to the press, and (on occasion) a consultant to food companies, I have become increasingly convinced that many of the nutritional problems of Americans-not least of them obesity-can be traced to the food industry's imperative to encourage people to eat more in order to generate sales and increase income in a highly competitive marketplace. Ambiguous dietary advice is only one result of this imperative. As I explain in Part II, the industry also devotes enormous financial and other resources to lobbying Congress and federal agencies, forming partnerships and alliances with professional nutrition organizations, funding research on food and nutrition, publicizing the results of selected research studies favorable to industry, sponsoring professional journals and conferences, and making sure that influential groups-federal officials, researchers, doctors, nurses, school teachers, and the media-are aware of the benefits of their products.
Later sections of the book describe the ways in which such actions affect food issues of particular public interest and debate. Part III reviews the most egregious example of food company marketing practices: the deliberate use of young children as sales targets and the conversion of schools into vehicles for selling "junk" foods high in calories but low in nutritional value. Part IV explains how the supplement industry manipulated the political process to achieve a sales environment virtually free of government oversight of the content, safety, and advertising claims for its products. In Part V, I describe how the food industry markets "junk" foods as health foods by adding nutrients and calling them "functional" foods or "nutraceuticals." The concluding chapter summarizes the significance of the issues raised by these examples and offers some options for choosing a healthful diet in an overabundant food system. Finally, the Appendix introduces some terms and concepts used in the field of nutrition and discusses issues that help explain why nutrition research is so controversial and so often misunderstood.
Before plunging into these accounts, some context may prove useful. This introduction addresses the principal questions that bear on the matters discussed in this book: What are we supposed to eat to stay healthy? Does diet really matter? Is there a significant gap between what we are supposed to eat and what we do eat? The answers to these questions constitute a basis for examining the central concern of this book: Does the food industry have anything to do with poor dietary practices? As a background for addressing that question, this introduction provides some fundamental facts about today's food industry and its marketing philosophies and strategies, and also points to some common themes that appear throughout the book.
Excerpted from Food Politics by Marion Nestle Copyright © 2002 by Regents of the University of California. Excerpted by permission.
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Meet the Author
Marion Nestle is Paulette Goddard Professor of Nutrition, Food Studies, and Public Health and Professor of Sociology at New York University. Author of Nutrition in Clinical Practice, she has served as a nutrition policy advisor to the Department of Health and Human Services and as a member of nutrition and science advisory committees to the U.S. Department of Agriculture and the Food and Drug Administration. She is the author of Safe Food: Bacteria, Biotechnology, and Bioterrorism (UC Press) and What to Eat .
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Food Politics as a fairly deep study of the politics of the food industry in the Unite States. The book can best be catagorized as text book caliber in both look and feel. Despite the in depth research, the author, Marion Nestle (no relation to the food corporation), does her best to make the information accesabile and understandable to both the professional and the casual reader alike. To be fair, you shouldn't read this book casually. I am not a food professional but I have read on the topic extensivly and thus found the content of this book extremely informing. You would do better to read other less weighty topics of food business before taking this one on as a casual reader. The political, legal and industry jargon can can intense and long winded at times and may turn off someone with only a mild interest in the topic. However if the topic of the food industry in the US is right up your alley so is this book. It is thorougly informative and educational. Im quite certain this book is used in college level classrooms across the country.
This is a textbook and as such may be more than the casual reader will want, however, that being said, if you want a detailed, indepth analysis of the politics of food, this is your resource.
Pretty good read for anyone in the food industry. Easy to read.