Marion Nestle

The nutrition guru

By
March 27, 2007

A biologist by training, Dr. Marion Nestle teaches at New York University in the Department of Nutrition, Food Studies, and Public Health. She is a national expert on the societal impacts of food and nutrition policy.

Nestle is known both for her clear explanations of science, nutrition, and governmental regulation, and for her strong arguments in favor of public awareness and regulatory reform. Her bestselling books include Food Politics: How the Food Industry Influences Nutrition and Health and Safe Food: Bacteria, Biotechnology, and Bioterrorism. Her most recent book is 2006’s What to Eat, a guided tour of the supermarket.

Do you believe that American attitudes about food are changing?
I think people are hugely interested in food and nutrition, and interest is growing and reaching a wider portion of the population. I call it the Food Social Movement, important enough to be in capital letters.

What do you mean by a “Food Social Movement”?
People are frustrated by their lack of power to do anything much about Iraq or climate change. But everyone can vote with forks for a better food system.

What’s happening around food issues — in schools, communities, farms, farm-to-communities, resistance to marketing to children, and other such mini-movements — amounts to the finest expression of grassroots democracy: of the people, by the people, for the people. It’s not organized, but it’s happening everywhere.

What area of food information is most interesting to you right now, and why? What area has the most potential for change?
My main interest continues to be how food marketing influences what children eat. I think that it is something individuals can do something about; one person really can make a difference. I’d like to see lots more done to restrict food marketing to kids and to improve school food.

Marion Nestle in a grocery store.

Industry is very aware of the shift in public attitudes toward marketing. At first, industry went through the traditional stages of grief: denial, attacking the critics, appearing to “health up” the product. Now they’re doing something, not just advertising.

There is a big profit in marketing to kids. But the legal liability of marketing to children poses a huge problem for the food industry.

What is it that Americans don’t understand well about food, and what’s helpful for your students to learn to explain these ideas to the public?
I just finished teaching a mini-course on science reporting, showing journalism students how to read scientific studies even if they don’t know much about science. They and the public would be much less confused if they understood how to take studies in context, be critical of results that seem like major breakthroughs, and pay attention to the self-interest of industry sponsors.

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The U.S. Farm Bill, which dictates most of our national food policy, is up for reauthorization in 2007. What should voters know about this bill?
The Farm Bill is enormously important to everyone in the population, but it is so complicated that hardly anyone understands it. I tell people to pick the issue that most concerns them — organics, locally grown food, food security, or whatever — and learn what they can about it and join groups working on that piece.

What should we do about food insecurity (the lack of reliable access to nourishing food) in the U.S.?
Everything inequitable in the U.S. is about class, and food is no different. I once heard Eric Schlosser (Fast Food Nation) say that important social movements started with elite groups, but ended up benefiting everyone. He mentioned the anti-slavery movement, the women’s movement, and the environmental movement. Let’s add the food movement to that list.

Why is there such a disconnect between the government’s dietary guidelines and the government’s federally subsidized, nutritionally deficient food programs?
Corporate lobbying, for starters. We have a huge regulatory gap at the federal level right now. That’s why so many states are passing laws having to do with obesity prevention.

What do you like to eat?
I follow my own rules: Eat less, move more, eat fruits and vegetables, and don’t eat too much junk food. I can always find something to eat that tastes good and fits.

Jackleen de La Harpe has been a science writer, a magazine editor, and a reporter for The Providence Journal in Rhode Island. She lives in Portland, Oregon.

Related book: Food Politics

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