August 3, 2007

Speaking With...: Marion Nestle

Considering who my first interviewee is, I could not be more thrilled to introduce the new "Speaking With..." section.

Marion Nestle, Paulette Goddard Professor of Nutrition, Food Studies, and Public Health at New York University's Steinhardt School of Culture, Education, and Human Development, is a world-renowned nutrition and food guru. If the subject is broached, you are bound to find at least one quote from her (often as the voice of reason).

Armed with an MPH in public health nutrition and a Ph.D. in molecular biology, Dr. Nestle is able to approach nutrition from a multitude of angles and consider its implications not only on human health, but also the environment and economy.

Over the past four years, she has released the following books:

Taking Sides: Clashing Views on Controversial Issues in Food and Nutrition (2003)
Food Politics: How the Food Industry Influences Nutrition and Health (2003; out on paperback on October 15, 2007)
Safe Food: Bacteria, Biotechnology, and Bioterrorism (2004)
What to Eat (2006)

Earlier this year, she debuted in cyberspace with her own blog, which has been a Small Bites "recommended link" since its inception.

Dr. Nestle was also featured in Morgan Spurlock's highly acclaimed documentary SuperSize Me! (she was the one producers turned to when they needed someone to define the word "Calorie").

Now, she sits down with Small Bites for an exclusive interview.

Do you find it frustrating that simple advice like "eat more fruits and vegetables" can be twisted by food companies to sell fruit-on-the-bottom yogurt, frozen vegetables smothered in cheese sauce, and apple slices "buddied up" with small containers of caramel or chocolate for dipping?

Frustrating? No, I think it’s unimaginative.

These additions are basic marketing strategies. The big profits in the food industry are in “added value,” which is what you do when you add fruit to yogurt and caramel sauce to apple slices.

Fruits and vegetables are difficult to brand--one head of cauliflower is much like another—so the profit margins are low.

I like to ask: why do all foods have to be sweet? Foods have so many marvelous flavors and textures. It’s a shame that the only thing food marketers can get anyone to buy is cloyingly sweet (or salty).

Your career has literally taken you all over the world. Apart from smaller portions, what do you think people in the United States can learn from other societies in terms of how they approach eating and nutrition?

People in many other countries have such different attitudes about food. For one thing, they don’t think all foods have to be sweet. For another, they eat way smaller portions.

The marketing of food is so much quieter—you don’t see as much advertising or absurd health claims on food packages. That is changing, of course. I am just back from Australia where I could not believe the amount of Shrek marketing. Supermarkets and McDonald’s outlets were covered with pictures of Shrek—on the junkiest foods imaginable.

Looking at obesity and smoking as public health issues, why do you think smoking has become something people increasingly look down on, whereas obesity often brings along issues of victimization, helplesness, and boundaries?

If a person lights up a cigarette at a party, his/her friends will have no qualms telling them it's gross and unhealthy, but if someone goes out to dinner with friends and orders a double cheeseburger with French fries, it's considered horribly rude and inappropriate to suggest they consider forgoing the cheese, or replacing the French fries with a baked potato.

Food isn’t tobacco. The message for tobacco is simple: don’t smoke. The public health goal is also simple: put tobacco companies out of business. I don’t know anyone who wants to put food companies out of business. Food isn’t poison. We have to eat.

The issues are what to eat and how much. There is so much evidence now that factors in the environment encourage people to eat more food, more often, in larger amounts. It isn’t enough to say that people should just exercise personal responsibility and say no to food.

We need to change the food environment to make it easier for people to eat more healthfully.

Do you think part of the health crisis in this country relates to the line between "junk food" and "health food" becoming dangerously blurred? For example, a "healthy" protein bar can deliver 100% of vitamins and minerals as well as 350 calories, 50% of one's daily saturated fat limit and 20% of the maximum sodium recommendation.

Meanwhile, sugary cereals made with whole grains have gone mainstream, sushi rolls are drowning in mayonnaise and contain deep fried fish, and flavored waters with as much sugar as a can of soda are marketed as health drinks.

We are back to marketing again. Remember: the American food supply provides 3,900 calories a day for every man, woman, and child in the country—roughly twice average need. Even people who overeat have limits on what they can take in.

So the food industry is hugely competitive. Under our investment system, it not only has to make profits; it must grow those profits every 90 days. So the food industry is basically stagnant with one exception: foods perceived as healthy.

If you can take the trans fat out of your junk food, add vitamins or antioxidants, or add a bit of whole grains, you can market it as “healthy.” Will doing this really help people improve their health? I’m skeptical.

What is your take on food addiction? Can some people truly be addicted to sugar and flour in the same way they can develop a physiological need for caffeine?

I don’t like to use the word “addiction” to refer to food. Food gives us life. We can’t live without it.

The research says that food stimulates the same pleasure centers as addictive drugs but not nearly to the same degree. And careful research on people claiming that they were addicted to chocolate, for example, could not find anything in chocolate to which anyone could be dependent.

People just love eating chocolate, which doesn’t seem like addiction to me.

Let's fast forward a year. Do you think Alli will continue to be a best-seller?

MN: I don’t have a crystal ball but my guess is that sales will decline when people discover that they don’t lose as much weight with it as they had hoped. Alli just forces people to eat less fat (because the consequences of overeating fat are unpleasant, not to say embarrassing).

But it’s easy to compensate for those calories with carbohydrates. And when it comes to body weight, it’s calories that count—no matter where they come from.

I want to once again thank Marion Nestle for granting me this interview, especially considering her busy schedule.

For the past few months (in between conferences, meetings, lectures, and book tours), she has been conducting exhaustive research for her
next book -- tentatively titled What Pets Eat -- which will tackle the nutrition of our pets, mainly dogs and cats.

It promises to be revealing, myth-shattering, and another success in Dr. Nestle's career.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Great interview, Andy. What I love about Nestle is her clear-headedness ("Food isn't poison. We have to eat," as she says above!). But even more so, I like that her books (esp. the earlier ones) stress that nutrition isn't just about fats, carbs, and protein but also (and perhaps mostly?) about marketing, economics, and lobbying--about "changing the food environment." --cbalt