Book Review - Food Politics by Marion Nestle

 Food Politics: How the Food Industry Influences Nutrition and Health
by Marion Nestle
$29.95, University of California Press
457 pages, 2002
Buy this book from Powell's, an independent bookstore

In a country where activists must fight for Americans' right to know what we are eating, it's not exactly news that diet is a political issue. We can no longer be certain, after all, that our organic produce has not been adulterated with genetically modified organisms. Certain potatoes are now classified as pesticides, and hazardous waste is used as fertilizer. Such is the state of the “free market” in food today.

Marion Nestle's Food Politics explores the impact of the food industry on the nation's health from another perspective: Why is the richest nation in the world eating itself to death? Her answer: Follow the money.

According to Nestle, who is chair of New York University's Nutrition Department, the US produces twice as much food as it needs: about 3800 calories per capita. Rather than compete with each other, she says, food companies encourage people to eat more, even though the key health issues facing Americans are degenerative diseases like diabetes and cancer, which require that we eat less. “Dietary recommendations for prevention of disease have hardly varied for the past half-century,” she writes, “but the consistency of such advice is a well-kept secret.”

Nestle knows about that secrecy first-hand. Her first day at work at the Public Health Service, when she edited the Surgeon General's Report on Nutrition and Health, she was given her marching orders: The report could not suggest restricting food of any kind, research be damned.

The book is especially good on the politics behind America's dietary guidelines, the shocking economics of soda pop in the schools, and how junk food is disguised as health food. Nestle is at her most brilliant when dissecting the politically correct—and purposely misleading—language of the dietary guidelines that make up the infamous food pyramid. She says 13 states have instituted food libel laws. A South Dakota law specifically prevents people from saying that generally accepted agricultural practices (such as the use of pesticides) might make food unsafe.

Something I did not know: Nestle reveals that the US does not produce enough fruit and vegetables for each of us to eat 3 to 5 servings per day, the minimum recommended. But she has an excellent suggestion for remedying this situation: subsidize fruit and vegetable producers, just as we subsidize the producers of everything else that we eat, including sugar.

Nestle's analysis falls short in the latter part of the book when she blames the nutritional supplement manufacturers—whoever they are, whatever products they represent (she never says)—for creating the political and regulatory environment in which multinationals can market food as healthy, even when it is of questionable or even detrimental value. On the one hand, she says that Europe does not allow companies to market as many supplement products as the US does, without the scientific research to back up their efficacy and safety. True enough. But she then goes on to claim that such supplements have been allowed in the US due to a culture of “believers” who disregard “science.”

Not entirely true. Many of those she classifies as “believers”—I am one—rely on scientific studies from Europe or other parts of the world. Indeed, as sophisticated as Nestle is about the politics of nutrition, she displays a remarkable naivete when it comes to the politics of medicine—and the repression of medical research in the US. The issue is not believers versus non-believers; it is good science versus bad. To her credit, Nestle has demonstrated that corporate America does not have a monopoly on the former.

Food Politics is hardly complete—it does not address the array of issues mentioned at the beginning of this review, nor does it delve into the politics behind controversial nutritional subjects like pasteurization and irradiation. But it is packed full of magnificent tables and charts. The result is devastating, especially for mainstream readers who still trust the experts. Even seasoned activists will certainly learn a trick or two.

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