Food Policy Shows How Your Sausage Is Made

After reading Marion Nestlé’s Food Policy , you will feel like a part of the universe of giants. Corporations alternately fight and collude with the United States government chapter after chapter, spending billions of dollars to influence what you, the consumer, decide to put in your mouth.

Marion Nestlé knows her cuisine and her politics. Nestlé (not affiliated with Nestlé ) is a professor of nutrition, food sciences, and public health at New York University , and in the 1980s she was senior adviser on nutrition policy at the Department of Health and Human Services and editor of General magazine. Surgeon General for 1988 . Nutrition and health report .

In this book, Nestlé keeps an eye on money. She methodically uncovers the network of connections between food companies, the government that is supposed to regulate them, and a wide range of minor characters such as school boards, academics, news organizations, and nutritionists. In most cases, she writes, everyone is well-meaning: companies are just trying to sell their products, food researchers want to avoid demonizing food, and government agencies are just trying to do their job without angering the members of Congress who control their operations and funding. Almost everything that is documented in this book is legal and possibly ethical, but as a result, public health often takes a back seat.

Who is this book for?

This book is for anyone who wants to have an informed opinion about our food system. We’re all cynical these days, but most of us just shrug our shoulders and say that corporate America is behind it all. And next time we will insist that we are immune to their influence.

But Nestlé pays attention to this. Two weeks before the book hit store shelves, she said, reviews began to appear on Amazon, calling her “the food nanny” who had forgotten “the not-so-small thing called WILL POWER!” They seemed to be the product of a PR campaign, and Nestlé’s book demonstrates again and again how the food industry benefits from the notion that it doesn’t influence our choices. Here’s how she sums it up:

We choose diets in a billion-dollar marketing environment to convince us that nutritional advice is so confusing and healthy eating is so impossible that it makes no sense to eat less of a particular food or category.

Nestlé documents how this nutritional confusion is partly due to lobbying and other actions in the food industry, and partly due to reactions to them. Her 500-page tome, published in 2002, is dated but still very relevant to our world.

Michael Pollan writes in the introduction to the 10th Anniversary Edition that food policy was a major influence on his writing of The Omnivore’s Dilemma . “The book you are holding,” he says, “is one of the founding documents of the movement to reform the American food system.”

What do you get

You will receive an in-depth education about our food system around 2002 and details from the past few decades of history on how it came to be. I read this book many years ago and recently revisited the anniversary edition to see what has changed. The text is so filled with stories and statistics that Nestlé decided not to update it directly, but to treat it like a history book and add a 38-page afterword that will grab you until 2013.

The main section of the book consists of five parts:

  • Undermining nutritional guidelines on how the food industry influences government dietary guidelines. Food companies politely ensure that the people who make up the leadership are aware of the research showing the benefits of their products. They have also historically conducted huge campaigns against guidelines that portrayed their products in an unfavorable way. Nestlé writes that when she arrived in Washington to begin work on the chief surgeon’s report, she was advised not to write that people should eat less of anything, especially meat, even if that’s what research has shown. She was told that the report recommending “eat less” would not survive politically and would never be published.
  • Work in the System , on the tactics of the food industry in other areas . This includes how government lobbying works and a circular system in which the USDA requires food processing companies to pay the government to sell their products. Think of the Eat Milk campaign. Because these groups are sometimes indistinguishable from lobbying groups, the government is essentially lobbying for itself. This section also includes industry funding for nutritionists. She cites a 1978 industry guide (yes, she literally reads pages from their playbook to us) that talks about research:

“[Recruiting nutrition experts] is most effectively done by identifying leading experts … and hiring them as consultants or advisers, or providing them with research grants, etc. This activity requires some finesse; this should not be too egregious, as the experts themselves should not admit that they have lost their objectivity and freedom of action. “

  • Child exploitation, school corruption is exactly what it sounds like: the industry’s strategies for advertising to children, and the ways big soda companies finance schools to fill their own pockets with children’s sugar consumption.
  • Deregulation of dietary supplements is moving away from food to talk about vitamins, herbal pills, and other medications that are regulated, sort of like food. There is a full timeline of how our current supplement regulation mess was essentially created by the supplement industry. The burden of police supplementation falls on the FDA, and its authority has been deliberately weakened by a number of laws over the years.
  • The invention of Techno-Foods has made history for fortified foods – think of the added nutrients to every loaf of white bread – and functional foods that claim health benefits. There is also a chronology of a decade-long attempt to bring Olestra to life .

In addition, the book has an introduction that describes how the food industry discourages eating less advice for anything that tempts you to eat more, as well as a conclusion about food choices. There is also an appendix that provides facts on the hottest issues in nutrition research.

One trick you won’t succeed

This book is not so much full of life hacks as it is a treasure trove of explanations for some of the weird things we see in our culinary landscape. Finally, there is a table that gives a pretty good summary of what the book is about. For each of the 2000 dietary guidelines, Nestlé summarizes the political and logistical dilemma that led to its precise formulation.

For example, next to the caption “Let the [food] pyramid guide your food choices,” it explains, “ Declare to eat less,” and provoke political opposition or say there is no good or bad food and confuse the public. … The previous chapter detailed how the pyramid itself was a compromise between these issues . It seems like every phrase in the guidelines was carefully worded after weeks or years of debate. Nestlé is unpacking these stitches to show us what the recommendations are actually made of.

Our opinion

We understand that there are fights and behind-the-scenes deals in the food industry, but it is difficult to understand their scale. Nestlé shows us that the impact of food companies goes far beyond a few commercials.

When I first read this book, I expected to see a simple story set in the modern era, with heroes and villains outlined. The biggest surprise was how difficult the situation is and how far its storylines go. You cannot read this and conclude that there is a simple solution to our nation’s food problems, such as eliminating agricultural subsidies or introducing compulsory nutrition classes for children.

Nestlé offers several solutions, but this is what you would expect from a food nanny. She advocates tough rules on advertising to children and food labeling in general. She loves soda taxes like the one recently introduced in Philadelphia and caps like the one that flopped in New York a few years ago . From her point of view, large enterprises and the government have created an environment in which “there is more”, so only the government can turn the tide. She may be right, but taxes and junk food restrictions sometimes feel like they’re punishing consumers for snacking.

Nestlé also has a very old approach to what a proper diet should actually be. In all fairness, there is controversy over whether saturated fat and cholesterol are as bad as we used to think. Even in recent years, she has not rejected the old thinking. She doesn’t forget about new evidence and is actually very thoughtful about posting it on her blog. For example, she points out that evidence for lowering the cholesterol limit in dietary recommendations comes from research funded by the Egg Board . So I trust her thought process, although sometimes I am skeptical about her conclusions. And so her point of view is great for reading.

Since food policy is now just another destination for reporters and bloggers, you can also read the work of many people influenced by Nestlé. Besides Michael Pollan, other good sources of compromise on food policy are Tom Philpott (now at Mother Jones) and websites such as Civil Eats and the Food and Environment Reporting Network . Consider Food Policy as your historic ramp.


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