Nobel Conference: Marion Nestle


“Food Politics: Personal Responsibility vs. Social Responsibility.”

Marion Nestle, Ph.D., M.P.H., Paulette Goddard Professor of Nutrition, Food Studies, and Public Health, and professor of sociology, Steinhardt School of Culture, Education, and Human Development, New York University (blog: Food Politics, Twitter)

Marion Nestle (not Nestlé) provided the first lecture of the conference, focusing on the forces that shape our food choices, including the forces that shape the business of agriculture and food marketing. Below is my summary of the lecture in tweets. The full lecture, including the Q&A afterward with all the invited speakers, is available on YouTube.

  • “When I started in nutrition, it never occurred to me that agriculture had anything to do with what we eat.”
  • The challenge is not how to feed 8-9 billion people, but to empower 8-9B people to feed themselves.
  • The solutions are social, not technological (empowering women, social and political stability.
  • You don’t have to be a Nobel winner to figure out how to avoid obesity.
  • Food industry can no longer just blame consumer personal responsibility for obesity. People eating less is big problem for industry.
  • Junk food should be a special order. Healthful food should be easy to get–the default.
  • Data slim, but rates of physical activity have changed very little since early 80s. People eating more.
  • More calories available in the food system (not consumed) for every person.
  • Everyone lies about food intake, but data still show 200 calorie daily increase.
  • Farm subsidy program shifted from paying for not growing to paying for growing. Result: corn and food industry competition.
  • Food companies also affected by new Wall Street demands for continual growth of profits. Industry changed in response.
  • Eating out (higher calorie meals) got cheaper due to subsidies. Portion sizes in prepackaged food got bigger.
  • “If there were one thing I could teach everyone in this room, it’s that larger portions have more calories.”
  • It’s been shown experimentally that larger portions = more calories is not intuitively obvious.
  • Larger portions cause people to underestimate calories consumed by a greater amount.
  • Ubiquity: “When did it become okay to eat and drink in bookstores?”
  • Fast food burger on a sweetened bun is highly subsidized ($1). Salad is not ($5).
  • “If you hear people talk about how expensive fruits and vegetables are, it’s because they are.”
  • Indexed price of fruit & vegetables up 40% since 80s. Grain products down 10-15%.
  • Food companies under tremendous pressure, but have generally not responded productively.
  • Ah, health claims. Chocolate cheerios may reduce the chance of heart disease?
  • FDA rolled on First Amendment arguments. Courts friendly to corporate speech claims.
  • American Heart Association only cares about fats, not sugars, in endorsements.
  • POM suing FDA over blocked antioxidant health claims. (First Amendment claim)
  • “Functional foods” the only big marketing category that’s selling these days, despite lack of regulation of claims.
  • Companies will tell you they don’t make health claims in their categories, only claims of “healthier” choices.
  • Health labeling “standards” set by companies. Vast majority of foods don’t meet independent standards set by nutritionists.
  • Smart Choices = less than 25% calories from sugar.
  • A better-for-you product may still not be a *good* choice. Fruit Loops = Smart Choice product.
  • Marketing to children can instill brand loyalty for life.
  • Kids’ marketing identifies “kid” foods, generally highly processed and not things a parent can produce on own.
  • Michelle Obama’s good food campaign has a tiny fraction of the budget for marketing *one* breakfast cereal.
  • Recent Salmonella eggs came out of dirty facility producing 2.3M dozen eggs per week.
  • Food safety laws the legacy of Upton Sinclair in 1906. Still not substantially updated since then.
  • Recent recalls show systemic failure. We know how to produce safe food, but we don’t enforce it.
  • We’ve had a good monitoring process (HACCP) that were developed for the first manned space mission. We don’t use it.
  • Need a single food-safety agency. Not happening. Senate has held food safety bill for 16 months.
  • Schools are slowly experiencing the food revolution. Grassroots activism is making a difference.
  • Buried on page 1206 of the health care reform act is national calorie labeling. Should be entertaining. Food lobby spending has shot up.
  • Sustainability movement is producing return to the victory garden. Everyone votes with their fork for the food industry they want.
  • You could not always walk into a supermarket and find fresh vegetables. This is progress.
  • “The sugar previously known as high fructose corn syrup.”
  • We don’t need to lose 100% of our industrial farming, but industry can get much better & we need diversity.
  • There are no superfoods. Only food. The key is a diverse diet.
  • Credibility of Am. Diatetic Assoc. destroyed by endorsements/partnerships.
  • We still live in a democracy. If there is enough noise, legislators have to listen.