Review: Food Politics

Food Politics: How the Food Industry Influences Nutrition and Health

By Marion Nestle
Berkeley: University of California Press
(457 pages)

Reviewed by Joylin Namie
Utah Valley State College


Why do we eat what we eat? This seemingly simple question often elicits an extraordinarily complex reply among those of us who study food. Eating is about a great many things other than nutrition. Factors as divergent as ethnicity, religion, body image, and economics all figure into what completes the journey from market to mouth. In societies like ours, however, where overabundance is the norm, choice is perhaps the factor most visible to us. Food is everywhere and we, as individuals, are free to pick and choose what we wish from the cornucopia that surrounds us. Who is it, though, who determines the choices we have to choose from? Do we really have as much choice in the matter as we think we do? In Food Politics, Dr. Marion Nestle argues that it is the food industry that not only determines our food supply, but negatively influences our diet and health in ways oftentimes invisible to the average consumer.

An authority in the area of nutrition and food policy, Dr. Nestle has been intimately involved with the food industry for decades. Her experience gives her an edge, while her current position as an academic nutritionist allows her the freedom to say what she pleases about those she takes to task. The result is a compelling critique of food company practices that dominate much of what we are told about nutrition, as well as many of the products we have to choose from in assembling a healthy diet. Taken together, the fifteen clearly written and well-researched chapters tell the tale of an industry bent on making a profit at the expense of consumer health.

Nestle begins by outlining the history of food advice in the US, in particular the transition from preventing diseases of deficiency (“eat more”) to the current focus on overnutrition and obesity (“eat less”). The carefully chronicled debacle of the creation of the Food Guide Pyramid highlights the power of food lobbyists over federal guidelines. It also throws into stark relief the dual role played by the USDA, an agency with conflicting mandates to protect agriculture (i.e., kow tow to the meat and dairy industries) and to advise the public about diet and health.

Part Two explains how food companies are able to exert a disproportionate influence over government nutrition policy, a scenario with which Nestle is intimately familiar as editor of the Surgeon General’s Report on Nutrition and Health (1988). Tactics used by the food industry include lobbying and campaign contributions to members of government associated with food regulations. How these methods influence policy is aptly illustrated through discussions of the “Banana Wars” involving Chiquita and the EU, and sugarcane production in environmentally sensitive areas of the American south. Nestle also exposes the ways in which the food industry co-opts professionals in the fields of nutrition and food research. She questions the ethics (including her own) of academic and professional integrity when food companies help defray the costs of producing academic journals, underwrite professional conferences, sponsor research, and even “purchase” entire academic departments. This section concludes with several insightful case studies illustrating the ways these factors combine to affect what we eat. Nestle uses well known examples to illustrate her arguments, including the boycott of Nestlé over infant formula and bottle feeding in developing countries, as well as the (in)famous London “McLibel” case and the suing of Oprah Winfrey by Texas cattlemen over the potential for Mad Cow Disease in America—lawsuits used by the food industry to quell potential debates about unsavory and unsafe food practices.

Part Three chronicles advertising efforts aimed at children and the inundation of schools with a flood of “junk” food and sugary soft drinks, the former a target Eric Schlosser tackled with equal ferocity and added historical depth in Fast Food Nation. Part Four closes the case study portion of the book with chapters devoted to tracing the deregulation of dietary supplements and the consequences of this for public health. This area of the food industry is unique in that, due to the efforts of supplement manufacturers, the public is left largely to itself to decipher information regarding the safety and effectiveness of herbal and botanical agents. Unfortunately, our perception of these products as helpful or harmful depends more often on our own beliefs rather than scientific proof of efficacy, a perilous situation well illustrated by Nestle’s chronicle of the ephedra tragedy.

Discussion of food industry practices closes with three chapters devoted to the engineering of “functional” or “designer” foods. Most illustrative is the chapter describing the thirty year saga of Proctor & Gamble’s Olestra©, categorized by Nestle as the “ultimate techno-food”, sucrose polyester. One omission in an otherwise insightful discussion is at what point such feats of food engineering stop being foods at all. If something added to something else prevents the combination from being digested, is the end product still a food? The fact that the very industry charged with supplying our food spends an inordinate amount of money and effort creating non-foods, and on discouraging us from eating real ones, brings us back to the central concern of this book: the influence of the food industry on our nutrition and health.

In the tradition of Upton Sinclair, Eric Schlosser and Michael Pollan, Nestle exposes the dark side of food. A life-giving substance, food can kill us, and Nestle never loses sight of the seriousness of this issue throughout the text. Our very health and well being is at stake. An overabundance of food, coupled with the clandestine efforts of food producers to encourage us to eat more, not less, is not only disturbing, but dangerous. Nestle emphasizes, however, that we can take action on our own behalf. Taking her cue in part from national anti-smoking efforts, she closes with strategies for countering the efforts of the food industry to destroy our health. In doing so she renders this book a guide for living, rather than simply a tool for teaching.

References Cited:

1988; The Surgeon General’s Report on Nutrition and Health
Washington, DC.

Pollan, Michael
2002; Power Steer
New York Times Magazine
Sunday, March 31, p. 44.

The Botany of Desire: A Plant’s Eye View of the World
New York, NY:
Random House.

Schlosser, Eric
2001; Fast Food Nation: The Dark Side of the All-American Meal
New York, NY:
HarperCollins Publishers.

Sinclair, Upton
1906; The Jungle
New York, NY
Doubleday, Page.

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