Interview with Marion Nestle, the revered American academic reflects on trust, nutrition and advocacy.
Paulette Goddard Professor of Nutrition,
Food Studies, and Public Health
In an ideal world, how would we provide for the 9.8bn people expected to be here in 2050?
We’ve seen that as economic status improves, people tend to have fewer children. That’s the best way I know to curb population growth. We have plenty of food to feed the world, but it is distributed inequitably. We could do a much better job of that.
The current relationship between economic status and nutrition is extremely poor – how can it be fixed?
Poverty is the single greatest determinant of poor diets. If we are serious about wanting to improve diets among people without resources, getting resources to them is the most direct way – better funding of schools in poor neighbourhoods, free college education, better paying jobs, and decently subsidised health care would all help.
During your academic career, how has our understanding of food changed?
“There is so much more interest now in the concept of food systems – everything that happens to a food from production to marketing to consumption to waste – and how it’s not possible to examine one part without taking all the rest into consideration. The idea of triple-duty policies – to address hunger, obesity, and climate change simultaneously – is the latest development.”
What inspired you to take such an interest in food and nutrition?
I love to eat! On my first teaching job, I was given a nutrition course to teach and quickly discovered that because everyone eats and food connects to so many topics, it is fabulous material to teach.
What does a healthy diet and relationship to food look like?
Healthy diets are so easy to explain that the journalist Michael Pollan can do it in seven words: eat food, not too much, mostly plants. Within those guidelines, eat what you love.
How does the food industry continue to influence nutrition research and practice?
The goal of food companies is to sell products. To expect them to be social service or public health agencies is to misunderstand how business works. Food companies are businesses with stockholders to please, so they behave like businesses: they advertise, market, fund research, lobby, litigate, and do everything they can to protect sales. That’s their job.
How has Coronavirus impacted food?
The big shock in the US is how Covid-19 has revealed fundamental flaws in our food system. For starters, it made clear that we have two completely different food supply chains — one for restaurants , schools, and other institutions and a totally separate one for retail stores. They don’t overlap at all. When restaurants and schools closed, all this food piled up and got destroyed.
This was happening at exactly the same time as millions of people were thrown out of work lining up at food banks to get handouts. We hadn’t seen anything like this since the Great Depression of the 1930s.
And then, all of a sudden, the lowest paid workers in the food system were deemed essential. Under pressure from the meat industry, President Trump invoked the Defense Production Act to force meat packing workers to go to work, even though they were at high risk for contagion. The meat industry fought public health measures (emails obtained through the Freedom of Information Act show this). Plants owned by JBS, the world’s biggest meatpacker, became epicentres of outbreaks in the U.S. and Brazil. More than 75,000 meatpacking, food processing, and farm workers have gotten sick so far — that’s a lot – and more than 300 have died.
For individuals, Covid-19 has had mixed effects. Sales of processed foods are up because they have a longer shelf life and they’re cheap. But some people are eating more healthfully, cooking at home, growing their own food, baking their own bread. That’s a good trend and I hope it lasts.
How has the internet helped or hindered the public debate on health and nutrition?
The Internet provides a platform for anyone to say anything about health and nutrition, whether factual or not. This puts a huge burden on the public to tell the difference between fact and fiction.
What makes you angry?
A focus on profit at the expense of public health.
Who can we trust when it comes to food?
My answer to this, obviously, is “me, of course.” I used to say that government sources were usually pretty reliable, but the current government is not interested in science that might contradict its ideology.
What are some success stories of food activism, particularly ones you have had a hand in?
I write books about food politics, but claim no credit beyond them for food movement successes. The best-known successes are soda taxes and warning labels; both change consumption patterns. I think food activism (I prefer advocacy as the descriptor) has brought us better food in supermarkets, more organic foods, more interest in food issues, greater public interest in and understanding of food issues, and – my personal favourite – more food studies programs. When we at NYU started our food studies undergraduate, master’s, and doctoral programs in 1996, we were basically it; now more than 50 universities throughout the world have such programs.
Nestle earned a Ph.D. in molecular biology and an M.P.H. in public health nutrition from the University of California, Berkeley and has been awarded honorary degrees from Transylvania University in Kentucky (2012) and from the City University of New York’s Macaulay Honors College (2016).
From 1986-88, she was senior nutrition policy advisor in the Department of Health and Human Services and editor of the 1988 Surgeon General’s Report on Nutrition and Health. In 1996, she founded the Food Studies program at NYU with food consultant Clark Wolf. She hoped that the new program of study would raise the public’s awareness of food and its role in culture, society, and personal nutrition.
It not only succeeded but inspired other universities to launch their own programs. Her research principally examines scientific and socioeconomic influences on food choice, obesity, and food safety, emphasising the role of food marketing. Through her role at NYU and her landmark James Beard award-winning book, Food Politics (2002), she has become a national influencer of food policy, nutrition, and food education.
Nestle is the author of a number of other acclaimed and decorated books – such as Soda Politics, an exposé into the multibillion-dollar soft drink industry – and from 2008 to 2013, wrote a monthly Food Matters column for the San Francisco Chronicle. She now blogs (nearly) daily at www.foodpolitics.com and her Twitter account, @marionnestle, has been named among the top 10 in health and science by Time Magazine, Science Magazine and The Guardian.
She follows her own dietary advice easily – skip breakfast, no processed food, small portions, plenty of fruits, vegetables, and whole grains (and the occasional bowl of ginger ice cream).