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Synopsis of: Food Politics

         The food industry in America is driven by one thing: hunger for greater profit. In Food Politics, Marion Nestle, M.D. conveys to the reader that food choices are political as well as personal. In five sections, she discusses in detail dietary advice, lobbyists’ influence on government, exploiting children as underage consumers, deregulation of dietary supplements, and the fortification of foods or “techno-foods.” Throughout the book, Nestle addresses the concern that even with so much attention given to dietary advice, consumers are still confused about what they should and should not consume.

Nestle first discusses the changes in federal dietary advice in the twentieth century. Dietary advice was a relatively uncontroversial government activity when the recommendation was to “eat more,” but with the shift to “eat less” came a shift in the public’s opinion on government interference. Many people fervently protested this new recommendation, especially people with ties to the food industry because “eat less” could result in less consumption of their products. Nestle asserts that “dietary guidelines necessarily are political compromises between what science tells us about nutrition and health and what is good for the food industry” (30). These guidelines must overcome conflicts of interest from the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA), lobbyists for big food companies and public-interest groups, and nutrition professionals. To achieve this, nutritional guidelines are strewn with euphemisms (e.g. “choose” and “moderate” as opposed to “limit” or “eat less”), which are ambiguous and only contribute to the confusion of consumers (77).

One cause of the lack of clarity in nutritional guidelines is that food companies have vastly greater resources than public-interest groups and can therefore exert greater power over governing bodies such as Congress (95). Consequentially, food companies are able to prevent messages that could hurt their business at the expense of public knowledge. Good advice about nutrition conflicts with the interests of these big industries (171). Conflicts of interest extend beyond dietary guidelines to marketing and advertising. Some food companies have a deep-seated interest in marketing to children, specifically soft drinks and foods devoid of nutritional value (176). These advertisements reach children not only through television and Internet mediums, but also through a medium that is mandatory for all: school. Originally, the purpose of the school lunch program was to improve the nutritional status of children, while providing an outlet for surplus agricultural commodities. Participants in these programs were shown to consume better diets than nonparticipants (214). When traditional school meals were replaced with foods of minimal nutritional value, the quality of children’s diets began to deteriorate and it became clear that many school officials were willing to compromise nutritional principles for financial gain (205). This compromise teaches children that nutrition and health are not important concerns, undermining public efforts to improve their dietary intake and reduce rates of childhood obesity.

Nestle introduces a new topic in the fourth part of her book: supplements and their deregulation. The supplement industry convinced most of the public and the government that its products did not need to be strictly regulated like conventional foods or drugs, and were permitted to make “structure/function” claims on labels (245). As these health claims proliferated, public confusion about diet and health increased. Rather than educate the public, health claims tend to mislead them; however, like the food industry, the supplement industry’s main goal is not advancement of public knowledge. Messages about single nutrients can obscure the basic principles of nutrition and Nestle argues that dietary advice should be more about the “big picture” (293). For this reason, Nestle also opposes “techno-foods” – foods and drinks that have been processed to supposedly give health benefits beyond the nutritive value of the original food (295). Reducing the value of a food to a single functional nutrient and isolating or increasing the quantity of that nutrient is problematic because the complexity of food composition and the interaction among food components is not considered. Techno-foods reinforce the misleading idea that health benefits depend on single ingredients, as well as divert attention from the need to promote healthful dietary patterns. No techno-food can replace the vast array of nutrients and phytochemicals present in fruits, vegetables, and whole grains, nor can they overcome the harmful effects of unhealthy diets (357).

While food choice is a matter of personal responsibility, Nestle argues that people “do not make food choices in a vacuum” (360). People choose foods in a marketing environment in which billions of dollars are spent to convince the public that nutrition advice is confusing, and eating healthy so difficult, that there is no point in bothering to eat less of one food product or group. The public cannot make informed decisions about food choice if they do not understand how the food industry and politics influence their choices.

Reference: Nestle, M. (2007). Food Politics: How the food industry influences nutrition and health. Los Angeles, CA: University of California Press.

Written by Kelly Isaacs, Kinesiologist, Simply Fit, Inc.