How Marion Nestle Changed the Way We Talk About Food
In her new memoir, Slow Cooked, Marion Nestle, the emerita professor of nutrition, food studies and public health at New York University, covers a lot of ground. The author, who founded NYU’s department—the fist of its kind—may be best known for her 2002 book Food Politics, a sort of People’s History of the United States for what’s in grocery stores. Nestle’s memoir covers the long path that led her to re-frame the food industry as one similar to big tobacco: An upbringing in a tense, politically radical New York household, formal training in molecular biology, and an academic career in medical schools, then government. It’s the foundation for Nestle’s work, which can focus on the gulf between how food is marketed and what it actually is.
There are reasons for this discrepancy. The difference between what we think of as food—healthy things, good for us, good to eat—and what’s available in grocery stores, airport terminals, and at gas stations is stark. Tax incentives and business imperatives, Nestle says, have pushed companies to sell processed, delicious and complicated foods at scale, turning many of us into repeat consumers. Which seems obvious now, in a seed-oil paranoid world. But it wasn’t as evident before Food Politics. Ahead of the release of her new memoir, GQ spoke with Dr. Nestle about calories, reading references, and scurvy.
GQ: How did your medical school experience and scientific background influence your nutrition work? Was it something you ended up doing, or in retrospect does your molecular biology PhD shape how you’ve approached food in your career?
Dr. Marion Nestle: Absolutely—science informs everything I do. It’s how I think. The nutrition came in after the basic science. I look at the science and figure out what it means—how do you translate scientific findings into advice for the public? I’m particularly interested in how the industry influences nutritional science, or intends to. It’s so much a part of how I think about it that I don’t think about it. It’s deeply ingrained.
In Slow Cooked, your memoir, you speak about your late start in nutrition. Food Politics came out when you were in your 60s, and perhaps its authority comes from your substantive scientific background—it lets you come at these issues differently. Was it an advantage not going through the traditional nutritional hierarchy?
Your question is very insightful, I never thought of that. It must have been, though I didn’t realize it at the time. It’s the way I approach learning about things—very systematically—and questioning authority. My molecular biology training, that place and time, was never to believe anything, and to dig deeper. You never read an academic paper without looking at the references. I don’t know if people are trained like that anymore. Then you read that paper’s references, and kept going back until you weren’t seeing anything new. Then you went forward again. It was tedious—you had to use the library, there weren’t computers—but that’s how I approached nutrition.
An example leaps to mind. There was a common belief a while back that if you took a lot of Vitamin C and then stopped, you’d get rebound scurvy. I thought that was interesting, so I read the papers on rebound scurvy, then the references and the references to those, and worked back to one experiment, done on a rabbit, if I remember right. It had nothing to do with rebound scurvy. It was a myth, and it was endlessly repeated. So it was an advantage. I’ve been attacked lots of times on my opinions, but never on my science.
Is that rigor applied to nutrition now?
I read nutrition textbooks, and some are more rigorous than others. It depends on how the people writing them were trained. There’s a lot of original research published on nutrition that looks, to me, that is not seriously investigated. I’m not training nutrition students anymore, but I would hope it’s there.
You refer at the end of the book to the importance of interpreting these studies. Are there tells people can catch when they look at a study? Or is this best left to academics to tease out these minute problems?
The public reads reporters’ views of the science. For the public, I say use common sense. If what you’re hearing is inconsistent with what you’ve always heard, be a little skeptical. Science moves incrementally—it doesn’t make enormous leaps. For me, the biggest red flag is the phrase, “Everything you’ve heard about nutrition is wrong.” It’s not. It never is if you dig deep. Be skeptical about the word “breakthrough.” If one particular food or nutrient is said to be responsible for a range of diseases, that’s a cause for skepticism. Nutrients are very specific, and a particular food is just one part of a diet that contains many.
For people reading academic papers, there are guidelines. Was there a hypothesis? Was it tested? Did the test actually address the hypothesis? Are the findings consistent with the hypothesis testing? You look for internal consistency, and whether the message is capable of answering what’s asked. I once said that, after a while, you develop a feel for whether a paper makes sense or not—and boy, did I get hell for that. “Feel” is not scientific. I should have stated it as, “If you have a lot of experience, you develop a sense of when something is a red flag.” I look for them when I read studies. One is who paid for it, which I think is under-appreciated as a red flag.
How pervasive or definitive are these conflicts of interests between food producers and researchers? Do they make up a majority of the big nutritional studies we come across? Are most of them bought?
No, a minority are. All researchers have biases: The minute you have a hypothesis, you’re stating a bias that your study will show something. But putting food industry funding on top of that introduces a financial consideration. And if your study is being funded by an entity with a vested interest in the study’s outcome, then that influence is exerted in ways not recognized by investigators.
Most of the research on the “funding effect” is done in fields other than nutrition, particularly pharmaceuticals. There’s 50 years of research demonstrating how funding skews the research and influences prescription practices. There’s so much of it that the evidence is incontrovertible. But there isn’t as much funding effect research on food, though it trends in the same direction. There’s no reason to think research on food would be any different. When I was casually collecting this data, it was really hard to find a food industry-funded study that didn’t have results that favored their interests. That makes me think the issues are pretty much the same. Studies that look at the percentage of what food studies are funded by vested interests figure it at about 15 percent—not a majority.
What are the challenges to getting a clear prescription on how to eat across to people? The problems with processed foods are downstream and long term, if you’re a consumer. But if you’re researching or writing about it, you see it up front every day. How do you get this info across that some foods are dangerous, or for profit and not for nourishment?
You’re asking really hard questions. I don’t know an easy way to do that. Sometimes you get lucky, and have research on your side. Interestingly, the word about ultra-processed food is out. There have been nearly 1,000 studies, and a lot have been written about. So people who read the science know about it. On the community level, these are foods that are cheapest, most filling and most delicious. People love to eat them because they’re designed to be yummy, and they have textures and flavors that people like so much that they can’t stop eating them. Some people describe it as addiction: the love for these foods share some characteristics, psychologically and biologically, to addictive drugs, although it’s not in the same category.
There’s education, but that’s rarely enough. You have to make societal changes for people to eat more healthily. And as long as healthy foods are more expensive, then this is a tough slog. There was talk at the White House conference I just returned from about ways to make fruits and vegetables less expensive.
What are these ways? Do they dent the corn and soy subsidies that make ultra-processed foods so affordable?
They’re pilot projects. There are groups working giving people on stamps coupons that get them twice as much healthy food; double-up food bucks. It’s written into the farm bill—a few million dollars, a drop in the bucket. What you really want, though, is an agricultural policy which is linked to health and environmental policy. One that supports production of food that’s healthier for people and for the planet. But, in the meantime, they have farmer’s market programs, where food stamps are worth more if they’re used for produce.
Your surgeon general’s report in the ‘80s focused on obesity and chronic disease, issues of affluence, that, nowadays, because of cheap ultra-processed foods, face impoverished communities as well. Was this the case then too? Is everyone now, rich and poor, eating the same food and suffering from the same nutritional ailments?
Three-quarters of American adults are overweight and obese, which suggests this is a country-wide problem. Everyone overeats. That’s what this is about. That report came out in 1988, and the sharp rise in obesity started in 1980. By 1988, it was clear that obesity prevalence was going up. But not as much as it went up in the next 10 years. To prevent chronic disease, the best thing to do was to reduce dietary fat, which is highest in calories. Fat, as a term, was being used in the report as a euphemism for meat, which itself is a major source of fat in American diets. And what happened after was an increase in liquid fats instead of solid fats, and sugars instead of fats, while calories went up across the board.
That report had unintended consequences in stimulating an enormous effort to produce food that didn’t have fat but were high in calories—the SnackWell phenomenon. Some people blame the Surgeon General’s report for the rise in obesity, but it started before then. No one read it. I wrote about that report’s complications in Slow Cooked, because it gets blamed for a lot of things I think it shouldn’t get blamed for. The National Academy of Sciences came out the next year with an identical report which was even bigger and said exactly the same thing. That’s what everyone thought then; it changed quickly. But nobody wants to talk calories, then or now. Anything but calories.
Nobody understands them. You can’t see them, feel them, taste them, smell them. You can’t count them—you think you can, but you can’t. They’re intangible, they’re not something you feel you can do something about. The message to eat less is not very attractive, even though it works. If you want to control your calorie intake, there’s really only one way to do it, and that’s to weigh yourself every day. If you’re gaining weight, you’re eating too much.
Why can’t we count them? Does it have to do with the fact that nutritional labels have allowances to be off by 20 percent?
They’re close enough. But if you eat two portions, you double the calories. And that’s not intuitive. A former doctoral student of mine did an experiment where she asked her students to tell her the calories in an 8 oz. soda and an 64 oz. soda. Simple math—multiply it by eight. The average multiplier was three. It’s a perception issue: the students said 800 calories in a soda was impossible. People think the things they eat are 100 calories. If it’s small, it’s 100 calories, and if it’s bigger, it’s still 100 calories. If you go to a restaurant, you have no idea what’s in what you’re eating. You cannot know. At a fast food place, it’s on the menu board, but no one looks at it. Almost everyone is overeating. That’s why we’re gaining weight. There’s lots of evidence for increased eating, throughout the 1980s: more fats, proteins, carbohydrates. That explains the weight gain.
It feels like companies which produce processed foods willfully misinterpret nutritional advice. Eat less fat, from the report, becomes avoid it completely. And Michael Pollan’s advice to eat food, not too much, mostly plants, has devolved lately to spur hyper-processed food with plant oils, described as plant based for the halo effect. Can anything supersede this? Or is this just how it is?
Natural is the famous one. You put natural on your product and you can sell it. Even though what I would call natural has nothing to do with natural flavors. Flavors don’t get extracted out. It’s complicated. Food companies say, “Tell us what the rules are, and we’ll play by them.” If the rule requires a warning label when there’s too much sugar, then the company will put in artificial sweeteners. They’re smarter than regulators or activists. Their job is to sell products, and they have a laser-like focus. They’re really good at it. If your job is to sell products to get returns for your stockholders, you can get around anything.
Regulation and education are always catching up: Taking 10 minutes to clean up a quick graffiti tag that takes 10 seconds to write. The producers are always ahead.
They’re really good at it, and they’re paid full time to do it. Advocates are lucky to get paid, and regulators have other things to do, and restrictions, and are caught in political difficulties. Our regulatory agencies have been captured by corporations. It’s hard for them to do anything that’s meaningful.
Your revelation in the memoir about marketing food to kids struck me. Is junk food categorically different from cigarettes? One is less harmful, but have they converged in the past 30 years?
The tactics are the same. The food industry picked up the cigarette industry’s strategy and tactics. Testing it out on the research, funding their own research to get the results they want, lobbying behind the scenes, which is easier now since Citizens United. I’ve said it and over again: Food companies are not social service agencies, and they’re not public health agencies. They’re businesses. Once you look at food products as widgets that need to be sold to make money for stockholders, you begin to understand how the food system works. But that’s not how most people think about food. We think of it as culture, pleasure, something which costs money, something we like, or which celebrities eat. It’s complicated; it’s something you put in your body that has an enormous impact on your health.
Do you tie your critical approach of the corporate food environment into your radical upbringing, with both your folks members of the Communist Party?
Oh, of course. Sure. I knew that that existed. When I wrote Food Politics, it never occurred to me that I was doing anything except describing the obvious. But it came as a revelation to people. It never entered many people’s minds that there might be a business imperative involved in marketing food to children. When I went to Michelle Obama’s marketing to children meeting, somebody there who worked for a food producer said, “We’d love to stop marketing to children, but we can’t, because we’ve got stockholders.” I picked up on that statement; this guy was confessing something that I had to infer. I was fortunate. If I had been working for a food company, and thought marketing to kids was unethical, I’d have to resign. I was fortunate in having a job where I didn’t have to make those ethical decisions. People who work with food companies’ sustainability offices can be the unhappiest people that you know. They believe in sustainability and the companies won’t budge.
Some of the realities presented in your book are pretty bleak. People describe it now as black-pilled: internalizing a sort of negativity after seeing how fraught the food system is. But what’s the upside for more people being more realistic about how food works?
People can make better food choices, they understand what the issues are, they enter into food studies programs, like at NYU. More people are interested in these issues than there used to be. That’s good.
This interview has been edited and condensed.
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