Get Up And Code 37: Food Politics With Marion Nestle
Pretty excited about this episode.
Iris, and I had the rare honor of getting to interview Marion Nestle in this episode of Get Up and CODE.
Marion is a Paulette Goddard Professor in the Department of Nutrition, Food Studies, and Public Health and Professor of Sociology at New York University.
She’s well known and highly respected in the food and nutrition space. She gave us some excellent insights into what is really going on with food politics.
Listen to the full episode below.
Iris: Hi and welcome to the Get Up and CODE podcast. This is Iris Classon and I’m here with my co-host John Somnez. Today we have a very special guest with us in the studio. We have Marion Nestle. Now Marion Nestle has nothing to do with the brand name Nestle. Marion Nestle is a Paulette Goddard Professor in the Department of Nutrition, Food Studies, and Public Health and professor of Sociology at New York University. Her degrees include a PhD in molecular biology and a Master Public Health in Public Health Nutrition both from University of California Berkeley.
Now she’s had so many positions and her resume is really long so if you want to read about all the cool stuff she’s done you can go to her website foodpolitics.com and you can read more about it. Some really interesting things is that she has been a Senior Nutrition Policy Adviser in the Department of Health and Human Services, an adviser for the FDA and she has written so many books. One of them, one of my favorite books of all time is called Food Politics and we will be discussing that today.
She has also made an appearance in documentary films such as Supersize Me, Food Inc, Food Fight and probably a whole lot more.
John: Hey before we start with this interview, I did want to let you guys know that this podcast is being graciously hosted by SignalLeaf. You can check out SignalLeaf at signalleaf.com if you’re interested in having a podcast and having it hosted. SignalLeaf makes it really easy for you to start your own podcast and to host that podcast and get everything set up. We thank the folks at SignalLeaf for sponsoring us.
Iris: I have a very first question for you Marion about one of your books, Food Politics. Now, Food Politics is an expression that maybe some of our listeners haven’t heard before or is this a common expression, what does food politics mean?
Marion: Well, when I wrote the book Food Politics everybody said, “What does food have to do with politics?” The answer is absolutely everything. Just think about the Farm Bill for example. Congress is busy fussing over it. It’s an enormous political battle that determines the way our agricultural system works. That’s food politics. What the FCA is trying to do about food labels is hotly contested. That’s food politics. Anything having to do with food assistance for the poor gets into enormous political battles. There isn’t anything about food that doesn’t have a political dimension to it.
Iris: How come people are so unaware of it?
Marion: I don’t think people think about politics in that way and they certainly don’t think about politics when they’re thinking about food unless they’re reminded that food is a trillion dollar business in the United States and that anything that suggests eating less or more of a particular food is going to have an enormous impact on some food industry. Therefore, there will be a tremendous political interest in making sure, for example, that the government never says anything about eating less of one food or another.
John: Right, that makes sense. Yeah, I always thought it was weird when I saw the billboards of like the milk commercials or the other white meat and the things like that because I thought, “Wow, is there really people that are spending money trying to lobby for this?” I think of it, an advertisement like Kraft Macaroni and Cheese but it’s so weird to me that it’s like these big, just giant types of food that are being advertised.
Marion: Well, I mean the issues are really pretty straightforward. Food companies are not social service agencies. They’re businesses. Like any other business, they have to make money and if they’re publicly traded they have to make money for their stockholders. That’s not even enough. They not only have to make a profit for their stockholders but they have to make a bigger profit and grow the profit constantly in order to keep stockholders happy. That’s really what governs the behavior of food companies. Everything they do is designed to sell more products not less. That was fine when we didn’t have obesity as such an enormous health problem in this country, but we do now. The deal about obesity is that if you want to do something about it you either have to eat less or move more or do both. Moving more we won’t discuss. Everybody is in favor of moving more, but the eating less part goes against the interest of business. The job of the food industry is to sell more food not less. That’s where the political battles come in.
John: That’s interesting. Yeah, I guess you do see a lot more advertisements for fitness. I mean it seems like a lot of people – I’m always correcting the misconception when people are saying that they have to exercise more to lose weight, but that’s not the thing because that’s not what’s advertised. All the exercise plans are advertised but eating less food is not something that you ever see advertised. You see low calorie foods and …
Marion: Yeah, with the idea that if you eat more low calorie foods you lose weight. I mean I think exercise is really important as a weight loss strategy but you also have to eat less. The easiest way to explain that is to work off the calories in a 20 oz soda. You have to walk for 3 miles. Just think about that. Most people don’t do that in America. I mean they’re in cars. They’re not on their feet. The idea that just something like a soda is going to require 3 miles of walking or running or whatever to burn off is not something that most people understand.
John: Yeah, I guess that’s true.
Iris: I guess the low calorie foods which seem to be a completely new section among foods that’s rather recent if you look at human history. Is that a way of telling people at least that they can have their cake and eat it too literally if it’s low calorie so they can continue selling based on amount?
Marion: Well it’s a terrific marketing strategy. In fact, anything that you put on a food label, we now have lots of research to show this. Anything that you put on a food label, if it’s low in fat, if it doesn’t have trans fat, if it’s got vitamins added, if it’s organic people think it has fewer calories then they can eat more of it.
Iris: When it says that it’s for example low fat, is it always lower calories?
Marion: No, not necessarily at all. They make up the calories with sugar. That actually has its own name. It’s called the snackwell phenomenon because in the early 1990s when all of the dietary advice was to just say that people cut down on fat because it’s so high in calories. SnackWells came out with a no fat cookie that replaced all the calories with sugar and they couldn’t keep those on the shelf. They flew off the shelves. People were following the trucks and waiting outside in order to get boxes of these. I didn’t think they tasted very good, but they certainly didn’t have any fewer calories and they did nothing to help people lose weight.
Iris: Would using low calorie products make people lose sense or calories related to the portion size as well?
John: Well, I don’t think people have much sense of calories in the first place and there’s a good reason for that. It’s really, really hard to know how many calories are in a food unless you weigh every ingredient that goes into it and look it up in tables. People certainly are fooled by portion sizes and there’s again a great deal of research that shows that if you give just about anybody a large portion of food that person will eat more calories – will eat more food, will eat more calories and will underestimate the number of calories and the amount of food consumed by a much greater proportion than if you give somebody a small portion of food.
I don’t think you need any more complicated explanation for rising rates of obesity than the rising size of food portions. In fact food portion started to get bigger just at the time when the prevalence of obesity started to increase. I know this because we did an experiment with a class at New York University where I teach where we asked a beginning nutrition class to say how many calories were in an 8 oz soda and how many calories were in a 64 oz soda.
Now, this is a mathematical problem that any New York University freshman no matter how mathematically challenged ought to be able to handle, 8 times 8 is 64. The average multiplier wasn’t 8, it was 3. We asked the instructor to go back and ask the class how come. Why did they say 3? The class said, “Well, because 800 calories in a soda is impossible.”
John: That’s funny. It’s amazing.
Marion: It’s inconceivable. It was inconceivable to them that one of those 64 oz sodas that you pick up at a movie theater could have 800 calories. They said, “It doesn’t say 800 calories on the label. It doesn’t make us feel full. It’s just a drink. It’s just water.”
John: Yeah, but if you drink it …
Marion: With no concept whatsoever of how many calories it has. That’s why the whole question of portion size is a serious one.
Iris: Does the Food Politics penetrate education as well?
Marion: Oh yes, I mean they’re – in my book Food Politics I talk a lot about the political influences on dietary guidelines. The main one is that the government cannot say eat less of any particular food group. I mean sodas are the big ones these days and everybody is talking about drinking less soda. The last dietary guidelines that came out of the Department of Agriculture and the Department of Health and Human Services said consume less SOFAS, S-O-F-A-S, SOFAS an acronym for Solid Fats and Added Sugars. Now, what they meant by that was eat less meat and drink less soda but they didn’t say so.
John: That’s interesting.
Marion: The reason for that is that the industries that make those products would go berserk if the government was telling the American public to eat less of them. The government dietary advices and euphemisms, I don’t know whether government dietary advice makes any difference to anybody on the street anyway. Most people don’t even know what it is. It would be likely more effective if it were a little clearer.
Iris: Yeah, I absolutely agree. I’ve noticed some differences with the dietary guidelines in the US and in Sweden which is strange because I thought the Swedish standards were based off the Nordic standards which again were based off the US standards. The recommendations were changed only a few months ago and now they’ve lowered the carbohydrate recommendations quite drastically actually. They used to be very, very high though, higher than in the US. They lowered the carbohydrate recommendations and there’s more focus on where you choose – what types of food so they promote whole foods. They’re making very clear statements about what you should eat and what you shouldn’t eat which I haven’t seen in the US recommendations.
Marion: No, we don’t do that except for things that you’re supposed to eat more of like fruits and vegetables. When the recommendation is to eat more they say eat more fruits and vegetables. When the recommendation is to eat less it’s all done in euphemisms and nutrients so it’s less saturated fat, less sodium, less sugar without ever talking about the foods that are the main sources of those. Although, if you read the document that comes out with the dietary guidelines it has tables that give you the major sources of calories in American diet. Grain based desserts is the number one source of calories in American diets not meaning that most people get most of their calories from them, but everybody in America eats grain based desserts every day.
What’s a grain based dessert? That’s a euphemism for donuts, pastries, cakes, pies, cookies, anything that’s got some kind of grain and is along with the sugar and everything else. That’s the number one source of calories with pizza close, second or third.
Iris: Wow, I had no idea.
John: A lot of people when I talk – everyone always says, “I’m not affected by marketing.” They always say, “No, it doesn’t –”
Marion: Of course.
John: Yeah, right? What do you think about that as far as foods? Are we being controlled by what we’re seeing?
Marion: Well, the advertising budgets for food products are just staggering. Companies wouldn’t be putting this kind of money into it if they didn’t think it did some good and there is in fact vast amounts of research that shows that people are enormously influenced by marketing particularly children. All you have to do is see a two-year-old heading for the cereal aisle with cartoons on the packages to realize how effective marketing is or the fact that two-year-old children recognize Ronald McDonald more than any other public figure in the world. Of course marketing works, but the amounts that are spent are just simply staggering. Between $30 and $40 billion a year is spent in advertising food just through advertising agencies where it can be counted.
It’s very hard to get individual figures on specific food products, but occasionally advertising agencies come out with some. The ones that stick in my mind are $267 million just for classic Coca-Cola or $51 million for pop tarts. This is a yearly budget. Now $10 or $20 million for any nationally advertised breakfast cereal. I mean just staggering amounts of money and no public health education campaign has the kind of money that is used as a minimum to market one nationally advertised product.
Iris: I’ve noticed and particularly New York seems to have put an extra effort in health campaigns. I’m not sure if it’s just because I’ve noticed their campaigns a little bit more, but they’ve had several campaigns. I’ve noticed in particular the ones targeting how much sugar people have in their diet. Is New York on the forefront of the health campaigns?
Marion: Well, it has been because under the Bloomberg administration it had 2 extremely activist health commissioners. We don’t know what will happen under the new mayor because the new mayor hasn’t announced who the new Health Commissioner will be but it would be hard to beat either of the 2 that were there under Bloomberg. The first went to be head of the Center for Disease Control. The second, Tom Farley, is still there.
What they did was to look at the health of people in New York City particularly the chronic disease part, the obesity, the diabetes, the heart disease and so forth and say what could they do as a health department that would help New Yorkers live more healthfully and eat more healthfully. So they came out with a series of measures, menu labeling, the ban on trans fats in New York City restaurants. They have already done cigarette smoking cessation some years before and then attempts to try to tax sodas and put a limit on the size of sodas.
All of these were designed to try to make it easier for people to make healthier choices, to make the healthy choice, the default choice. I thought they were exciting to watch and there are still lots of education campaigns on posters and subways where you see them, if you notice such things telling people that they would be healthier if they ate less sugar and had a fewer sodas.
Iris: Those campaigns actually did have an effect on me because they were really well done. Now, I feel like those would work for me, for example, but I’m not so sure about the new legislation. I guess it’s not that new anymore. I can’t remember the details, so sorry if I say something wrong here, about restaurant chains that have to have nutritional information on their menus.
Marion: Yes. That was something that started in New York City in 2008. In 2010 when President Obama signed the Affordable Care Act the Affordable Care Act has in it a provision that takes menu labeling nationally but the FDA has not issued those rules yet. We’re still waiting for the FDA to issue the regulations that will take menu labeling nationally.
Now in the meantime there have been any number of studies of how many labelings has worked in New York fast food restaurants. The studies generally show, and I’m painting this with a very broad brush, the studies generally show not much affect on calorie intake as a result of the menu labeling law, but the studies that are more carefully done and look at whether people actually look at the calorie labels so that people who look at the calorie labels do change their behavior. I can tell you that the calorie labelings affect my behavior. There’s no question about it at all if I see a muffin that’s 700 calories I’m going to think twice before buying it when I really want something that’s half that size. I know if I buy the whole one, I will eat the whole one. I know I will do that. I’m human like everybody else.
I think this is something that we just have to wait and see how it works. The big question is it works on me but I’m healthy and educated and have enough money to make choices. The real question is will this help people who don’t have money, don’t have education, will it help them make those kinds of choices? That remains to be seen. If the menu labeling campaign comes with a big educational campaign with it, it might have an effect. Most of the studies have shown that it requires an educational campaign to go with it.
Iris: Color coding with – I’m not 100% sure, but I think I remember that Britain has done something similar. I’m not sure if it was nationally, but they had color coding as well so they used the red, green and yellow.
Marion: Yeah, these are color coded stickers or labels on the front of packages that indicate the healthfulness of the particular food product. The food industry in the United States has said that color coded labels are absolutely unacceptable. Part of the reason for their feeling that they’re unacceptable is that there’s some evidence that red colored labels, the stop labels, actually do discourage people from buying products. Remember, you’re not allowed to do anything here to stop people from buying product.
John: That’s funny.
Marion: I mean this is a classic example of food politics. The FDA was very interested in setting up some kind of color coded labeling and it embarked early on in the Obama administration. It embarks on a big research study. It recruited the Institute of Medicine to do 2 separate reports on front of pack labeling showing what consumers responded to and what would be the best way to do it. The second report came out with something that wasn’t color coded labeling but was a star system where you could get 1, 2 or 3 stars if the products had some healthful qualities. I thought it was a pretty reasonable compromise, but those reports were put in a drawer and the FDA has not budged on front of package labeling. When I talk to people at the FDA about it they will say, not for quotation, that the White House Regulatory Office has absolutely blocked them from doing anything about it because it’s too controversial. The food industry would hate it.
Iris: You can’t do what actually works.
Marion: Yeah, it might stop people from buying products that were – it might stop people from buying junk foods.
John: Yeah, it seems like – oh sorry.
Iris: No, go ahead.
Marion: That’s politics for you.
John: When you were talking about this I was thinking most people don’t know how many calories they burn in a day. They don’t know …
Marion: No, how would they? I certainly don’t. No, I have no idea.
John: They don’t even know what the average person or even close range. When they look at the calorie count at McDonalds they …
Marion: They think more is better.
John: Or you’re just comparing them against each other the choices. I think there definitely needs to be some education. I’m not the biggest fan of Weight Watchers but at least they had a system where people could figure out how many points and then those points – it was simple enough. Do you think we need some system like that? What’s the solution to this problem?
Marion: Well, it might be. For people who are trying to lose weight they have to figure out a way to reduce their calorie intake below their expenditure. The easiest way to monitor whether you’re doing okay on that is to weigh yourself. If your weight doesn’t change from day to day you’re balancing calories. If you’re gaining weight, you’re eating too much. Most people don’t weigh themselves every day. If they do, they don’t know how to deal with it.
We have a huge educational gap particularly among people who need it the most. That’s a worldwide phenomenon. I’ve just read a report from Finland that says that people who are overweight and have risk factors for chronic disease are least likely to be following the Nordic nutrition recommendations and it doesn’t surprise me at all.
Iris: What worries me about this as well as people are increasing in weight and obesity is still increasing – in Sweden it actually stopped. It’s not on its way down but it has stopped for the last 3 or 4 years. There seems to be this other extreme, instead of going towards a healthy diet they go on the other extreme, I guess the other part of the politics which is promoting specific diets which again are companies such as Atkins and so on, special interest groups and people go on the other extremes of things instead looking for a quick solution or something that is so restrictive that it gives them a social, what do you call it, they feel like they belong to a group.
Marion: Well, that’s kind of nice and actually there’s some evidence that belonging to a group is very helpful in helping people lose weight if it’s the right group. The diet industry is a $60 billion industry in the United States. Here again you have powerful interests that are very interested in keeping the system pretty much the way it is which is why trying to get any kind of regulation or any kind of system in place that makes it easier for people to be healthier is very, very difficult in this country.
John: Right. One thing I wanted to ask you about, because a lot of people seem to be concerned about the wrong things I think. I was curious to get your opinion on the things that I keep on hearing. On my news feeds people talking about it’s GMOs, it’s organic foods, it’s people who are eating unhealthy, but these are the things that they’re talking about. Are they right in talking about these things? Where do these things fall into the level of priorities of what people should be worrying about?
Marion: Well, these people have their own priorities. If you’re going to look at health risks the single greatest health risk is bacteria in the food supply, dangerous bacteria in the food supply and nobody worries about them at all. They’re very, very low on what’s called the dread and outrage scale. Researchers on risk communication have known about this for decades that people have a dread and outrage scale and on that scale the things that are highest are things that are far in the unknown technological under somebody else’s control and GMOs are very, very high on that list. The things that are low on the list are things that are familiar. Everybody gets food poisoning once in a while and most people are still alive. So it’s very low on the dread and outrage scale.
Yeah, I mean these other kinds of issues are of great concern I think not only for safety reasons but also because of issues around controls of food supply, the political issues, the politics of GMOs. I wrote a book 10 years ago called Safe Food: The Politics of Food Safety and half of it is about GMOs and I must say it holds up very well,
John: Are you in favor of eliminating GMOs or do you think there’s a balance?
Marion: I’m in favor of labeling them. I think a lot of problems about GMOs would have been solved right from the get-go if the biotechnology industry had fiercely lobbied for not having them labeled and they’re now paying the price for not labeling them. If they had been labeled from the beginning we would have a lot more understanding of what their effects are because people would know what they’re eating. Right now they don’t.
Iris: It’s more giving people the power to choose themselves what they eat.
Marion: Well the food industry is always talking about this being a matter of consumer choice. In the case of GMOs people don’t have a choice.
John: Right. What about on the organic side? From my experience I’ve seen a lot of people abusing the organics label and people in general just not understanding what that means and just assuming that anything that says organic must be healthy. What do you think about that?
Marion: There’s some education that’s needed there too. I happen to be greatly in favor of organic food. I think it’s much kinder to the environment. Organics are about production values. They’re not really about nutrition. They’re about production values. That’s why I find the research that shows that people interpret an organic label on a product as meaning that it’s healthier or that it has fewer calories as being quite funny, particularly the fewer calories part, I think that’s hilarious.
John: You’d say that organics is more about a lifestyle choice of what you want to support and believe in rather than your actual health …
Marion: Well, it’s not a belief. It has to do with having fewer pesticides and herbicides dumped on soil, getting into water and polluting the Gulf of Mexico. I think they are genuine reasons why we should be supporting organic agriculture and trying to get more and more and more acres under organic production. It would just be much, much better for our environment.
Iris: Making choices such as whether not to eat GMO foods or eating organic, it’s not so much about calories or the nutrients in it. It’s engaging politically in the environmental issues as well.
Marion: Oh absolutely. I think they’re inextricably linked. They’re totally connected to each other. We’re not going to have a healthy food supply if we don’t have a food supply. That requires making sure that we have adequate land and decent soil and uncontaminated water would be nice too.
Iris: I have to ask, in terms of labeling organic foods because I know I’ve had this discussion, the labeling system in Sweden is a little bit crazy as well, how do you know if something is organic?
Marion: It says so. It has a label on it that says USDA certified organic. If that’s the case then it has to follow the rules set by the USDA’s Organic Standard Board whether you think those rules are good, bad or indifferent is a separate issue, but at least you know exactly what it is that the producers of those foods are supposed to have been because they were inspected to make sure that they did that.
Iris: It’s not enough if it says it contains organic ingredients?
Marion: That’s different. That means it contains organic ingredients. Again, you know what those ingredients are because there are rules that are set up by the Department of Agriculture.
Iris: Yep. Labeling is really, really tricky. I know in Sweden in terms of – to call something low fat it only has to have 30% less fat than the standard alternative. How is it in the US?
Marion: There are specific rules about what the criteria are and the FDA sets those. I don’t know what they are offhand.
Iris: Maybe they don’t matter that much anyway.
Marion: It’s the kind of thing you have to look up.
John: I like seeing those, you know, you go to the store and there’s the candies and all the candy, the sugary candies that say “fat free” and it’s just funny when I see that. I’m like, “Oh, really?”
Marion: Well, usually it is.
John: All right, well that brings us to the end of this episode. We hope you’ve enjoyed it and we really thank Marion for being on this show. We’re really lucky to be able to get some of her time. She’s very busy and has a lot of requests I’m sure so we thank you again, Marion, for giving us this time.
Don’t forget, if you want to check us out online you can get to getupandcode.com. You can follow us on Twitter @GetUpAndCode and let us know if you have any ideas for shows for 2014. We’ve got a lot of cool interviews and things planned, but you can always e-mail us at firstname.lastname@example.org and we’ll talk to you next week, take care.