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Last Updated on June 19, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 343

Marion Nestle, professor of Sociology, Nutrition, Food Science, and Public Health, has devoted Food Politics to the the presentation of how the food industry affects public health. The book is divided into fifteen chapters and is informed by the author's extensive research into food science, her background in molecular biology, and her years working as an editor on the Surgeon General's Report on Nutrition and Health. Clearly, Nestle is uniquely qualified to discuss the politics of food.

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Her thesis is that various food industries effect public health. In the first part, Nestle explains how desperately food industries (such as the meat, dairy, and food processing industries) want the public to eat more. She insightfully explains that the per capita food production has increased from 3,200 calories per day in 1970 to 3,900 calories per day by the 1990s. Because of this surplus, these businesses are pressured to invent new (often processed) foods in order to attract the public and keep their profits high. Here, too, Nestle explains the various political stages involved in the production of the Food Guide Pyramid. The various changes to food pyramid is the ultimate testament to the power of lobbyists in government's advising of the public concerning health and nutrition.

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In the second part, Nestle highlights how various food industries make campaign donations to government officials on agencies responsible for food regulations. These aggressive and profit-driven food companies influence both government officials as well as academics (the latter by means of contributing to professional journals).

In the third part, Nestle identifies the means by which these food industries advertise. Particularly, she notes, food companies advertise to children. They especially promote junk food, which (unsurprisingly) has led to childhood obesity.

In the fourth part, Nestle addresses the dietary supplement industry specifically. She claims that supplement companies deliberately obscure the contents (and sometimes side effects) of their products in order to trick the public into believing in these products' efficacy. As an example of this, Nestle adduces the several deaths and injuries caused by excessive use of the poorly regulated herbal stimulant, ephedra.


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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1751

Most Americans are familiar with the food pyramid developed by the U.S. Department of Agriculture. It emphasizes the importance of eating more food from the grain, fruit, and vegetable groups (plant foods); fewer servings from the meat and dairy groups; and limited intake of animal fats, oils, and sweets. Most Americans also understand that keeping their weight within normal limits is important to good health and that people who are overweight need to eat less and reduce sugar and foods high in fat in the diet. Yet the number of people who are overweight (over the ideal weight for their age and height) nearly doubled between the late 1970’s and the early 1990’s. At least 14 percent of children aged six to eleven, 12 percent of adolescents, and 35 percent of adults are overweight. The rate of obesity (having more than 25 percent body fat in men and 30 percent body fat in women) rose from 12 percent to almost 18 percent among adults in the years between 1991 and 1998 alone.

Compared to the people of other nations, most Americans consume more food in general, but especially more animal-based foods (meat, fried foods, dairy products, and grain dishes with high-fat sauces), causing them to be overweight and contributing to cardiovascular disease, diabetes, and many chronic illnesses, which are the major health problems in this society. The medical costs for diet-related conditions was more than $70 billion in 1995. Obesity in children is associated with health problems that were formerly seen only in adults, such as “adult- onset” high blood sugar and high blood pressure. The state of affairs is so bad that, in December of 2001, U.S. surgeon general David Satcher announced that obesity would soon become the Number 1 killer in America. Satcher has urged schools and industries to develop new policies to deal with this growing epidemic.

In Food Politics: How the Food Industry Influences Nutrition and Health, Marion Nestle, professor and chair of the Department of Nutrition and Food Studies at New York University and former nutrition policy advisor to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, places the blame for this deplorable state of affairs squarely on the food industry. In this well-organized and well-researched book, she skillfully mounts a carefully documented argument that, to a large extent, the powerful food industry in America determines what people eat. Because more food is produced than is needed in this country, food companies, in fierce competition with one another, must encourage the public to eat large quantities of their products in order to increase sales and profits. Portion sizes have increased markedly in recent years; “super-size” sodas and fries, “jumbo” milkshakes, enormous cookies, and larger muffins and pizzas are the order of the day. Nestle charges that food companies, using clever marketing strategies, “routinely place the needs of stockholders over considerations of public health” and they “will make and market any product that sells, regardless of its nutritional value or its effect on health.” Raw food producers receive only about 20 percent of the retail cost of food—the rest goes to labor; processing (such as converting cheap potatoes to expensive potato chips) and additives to increase food value, attractiveness, or convenience; packaging; and advertising. Food companies spend over $33 billion annually on marketing and advertising, including more than $11 billion on direct media advertising in television, magazines, billboards, supermarket displays, and the Internet. Given this kind of intense psychological pressure, most people find it difficult to resist overeating.

School children are increasingly becoming the target of advertising. According to Nestle, “The amount of money spent on marketing directed to children and their parents rose from $6.9 billion in 1992 to $12.7 billion in 1997.” Children are especially vulnerable to television advertising because they watch television for many hours, commercials are endlessly repeated, and children are less aware of the difference between commercials and program content. Beyond television, there is Internet marketing, the use of logo items, “educational” counting books and puzzles, and prizes. Companies also target schools. Many schools, hard-pressed for financial assistance, have formed partnerships that allow food companies to advertise under the guise of education. One disturbing example is Channel One: In exchange for television sets and installation hardware, twelve thousand schools have required viewing that includes commercials for products such as soft drinks and candy in most classrooms for twelve minutes per day on 90 percent of school days (or thirty-one hours a year). The programs themselves are of questionable educational value. Another example of blatant advertising to children is “pouring rights” or contract agreements with soft drink companies, whereby a school district receives large payments from a soft drink company in exchange for the company’s exclusive rights to sell only its products in the district’s schools. Soft drinks are high in calories and caffeine but low in nutrients, and they have replaced milk in the diet of many children. They contribute to obesity, tooth decay, and bone fractures, especially among teenagers. Meanwhile, the U.S. government does not know what to do with a supply of nonfat milk powder worth $1 billion (equal to 1.3 billion gallons of milk) that it has bought and stockpiled over the past three years to support dairy farmers’ income. Nestle points out that “the large agricultural corporations that most benefit from federal subsidies spare no effort to persuade Congress and the administration to continue and increase this largesse.” It is well documented that early food choices set the pattern for lifelong preferences. Candy, soft drinks, ice cream, and fast food rank high among the preferences of children who use their own money to buy food and beverages. Research indicates that only 1 percent of all American children even come close to eating a diet that resembles the number of serving recommendations of the food pyramid.

The industry manipulates the public by labeling foods high in calories and sugar as nutritious because they are “fortified” with vitamins and minerals. Kellogg spent $20 million trying to convince Americans that sugar-coated cereals are good for children. Nestle complains that Kellogg’s Froot Loops cereal

contains no fruit and no fiber and provides 53 percent of the calories from added sugar. The New Froot Loops (‘same great taste with zinc, iron, and now calcium’) reduces the sugar to 50 percent of calories and offers all of 1 gram of fiber per serving. Nevertheless, the company advertises Froot Loops as a health food.

In fact, Nestle argues, Froot Loops are more like candy than cereal and belong at the very top of the food pyramid.

People can become aware of the impact of advertising. Few people realize, however, the extent to which the food industry influences politics to gain professional and government support for their products. The food industry spends millions to manipulate public opinion indirectly by lobbying government agencies and members of Congress, making financial contributions to nutrition and health professionals, and intimidating critics with lawsuits. As an expert witness in lawsuits involving the industry, Nestle has seen documentation of lobbying interactions with government officials and Congress, “but such documents are proprietary, subject to sworn confidentiality agreements, and unusable as sources of information.” Federal health officials endure “almost constant congressional interference with their dietary recommendations” and it is difficult, if not impossible, for them to recommend restrictions on any food category because of conflicts with the food industry.

Nestle cites many examples of how food companies influence nutrition professionals to endorse their products. It is a deliberate strategy in the industry to gain the support of nutrition experts by hiring them as advisors and consultants, funding research, underwriting publications, and sponsoring professional meetings, similar to the way pharmaceutical companies support some physicians and many activities of the medical profession. Nestle contends that dietitians, nutritionists, scientists, and universities allied with food companies have compromised their objectivity and critical judgment and are no longer in a position to give unbiased information. Studies indicate that research sponsored by industry is more likely to draw conclusions favorable to the industry than nonsponsored research. The American Dietetic Association, which represents seventy thousand registered nutritionists, relies on such sponsorship, and critics say it never criticizes the food industry. As evidence, Nestle points to the association’s fact sheets: One that stresses the importance of biotechnology is financed by Monsanto, the leading American producer of genetically engineered crops; one that endorses aspartame is financed by NutraSweet; and one that states that the connection between sodium and high blood pressure is unclear is sponsored by Campbell Soup. University departments concerned with nutrition, food science, and agriculture now actively seek corporate funding, and there are now exclusive public-private partnerships between some food companies and university departments. For example, Novartis, the Swiss company that owns Gerber Products, and the Department of Plant and Microbial Biology at the University of California (UC), Berkeley, have a partnership that gives the company the right to select participating faculty, review research findings before publication, and influence faculty participation on certain projects. What concerns critics, according to Nestle,

is the idea that companies might dictate the direction of research or unduly influence or delay its publication. Although faculty have reported incidents of intimidation and of pressure on students to work on Novartis-funded projects, the dean of the college reportedly termed such concerns “silly.”

This book has caused a great deal of controversy and angered critics, who claim that Nestle neglects the complexity of the social and cultural environment that influences food choices, especially the contribution that physical inactivity makes to obesity. Some say the food industry is only giving people what they want and that people resent any efforts to control what they eat—after all, popcorn, salt, alcohol, soft drinks, fast foods, frozen dinners, and sugar substitutes are not harmful to all of their users. They suggest it would be better for public health activists to teach consumers how to select food, read food labels, and choose recommended portion sizes, rather than to attack specific foods and ingredients.

Nevertheless, Nestle’s indictment of the food industry is compelling and disturbing. If only to generate discussion of the issues it raises, the book is a must for food and nutrition professionals; government officials who deal with these issues; consumer advocates; students in agriculture, nutrition, and public policy programs; and people who work in the food industry. It is also recommended for the general reader concerned about food, nutrition, and health, although it reads like a textbook. Numerous tables, figures, and comprehensive notes support the text.

Sources for Further Study

The Economist 363 (May 11, 2002): 78.

Los Angeles Times, April 2, 2002, p. E3.

The Nation 274 (May 6, 2002): 37.

The New York Times, May 15, 2002, p. F6.

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