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Exposé From a Food Policy Insider
book review by Jeff Nelson

Food Politics:
How the Food Industry Influences Nutrition and Health

by Marion Nestle, Ph.D., M.P.H.
469 pages, University of California Press,
March, 2002

Marion Nestle’s “Food Politics” is not like “Fast Food Nation,” or John Robbins’ books such as his recent “The Food Revolution,” or Frances Moore Lappe’s works including her “Hope’s Edge.” Unlike these books, “Food Politics” doesn’t take a strong ethical or emotional stance on food issues.

What it does do is quietly and systematically, with the careful scholarship of a master academician, show how the U.S. food industry works relentlessly to get you to eat more. And how very often it is the worst foods, the least healthy foods, the foods lowest in essential nutrients and highest in fat and sugar, that get promoted the most.

Nestle is an insider, part of the establishment. She managed the editorial production of the first, and as yet the only, Surgeon General’s Report on Nutrition and Health. She says that on her first day on the job, “I was given the rules: No matter what the research indicated, the report could not recommend ‘eat less meat’ (because) the producers of foods that might be affected by such advice would complain to their beneficiaries in Congress, and the report would never be published.”

No subsequent report has appeared, even though Congress passed a law in 1990 requiring that one be issued every two years. Why? The answer, according to Nestle, is food politics. She points out that “saturated fat and transsaturated fat raise risks for heart disease, and the principal sources of such fats in American diets are meat, dairy, cooking fats, and fried, fast, and processed foods.” Any advice of federal policies that sought to decrease consumption of these foods would cause the sellers of these foods “to complain to their friends in Congress.”

One of the strengths of “Food Politics” is Nestle’s description of the deliberate use of young children as sales targets. Children are eating too much of the wrong kinds of foods. Obesity rates are skyrocketing. And the food industry is spending billions to keep kids hooked on junk foods. In 1997, U.S. children obtained no less than 50% of their calories from added fat and sugar.

Nestle points out that soft drink companies unapologetically name 8- to 12-year-olds as marketing targets. McDonald’s produces commercials, advertisements and a Web site aimed specifically at children 8 to 13. Quaker Oats happily spends $15 million to promote sales of its heavily sugared Cap’n Crunch cereal to children. “Teletubbies,” the public television program for toddlers, was first sponsored by Burger King and later by McDonald’s. Meanwhile, only 1% of U.S. children regularly eat diets that even resemble the recommended proportions of the food pyramid.

In 1987, researchers counted 225 commercials on major television network channels during Saturday morning hours. In 1992, the number had increased to 433. By 1994, the number had grown to 997.

And these ever-increasing ads are hardly for healthy foods. The vast majority are for hamburgers, candy bars, fast food, soft drinks, cookies, chips and heavily sugared breakfast cereals. Researchers could not find a single commercial for fruits, vegetables or whole wheat bread.

Meanwhile, schools are being converted into vehicles for selling foods high in calories but low in nutritional value. One of the most deplorable examples is “pouring rights”—large payments from soft-drink companies to school districts in return for the exclusive right to sell that company’s products in every one of the district’s schools.

Soft-drink companies have for years sold their products on school and college campuses through vending machines. But “pouring rights” represent a major step forward in the campaign to encourage kids to drink more, much more. From 1985 to 1997, Nestle points out, school districts increased their purchases of soft drinks by a staggering 1,100%.

The marketing strategy is effective. The softdrink companies make large lump-sum payments to school districts and additional payments for five to 10 years. In return, the companies get more than exclusive rights to sell their products in school vending machines and at all school events. They get to turn schools into advertising vehicles for their products. The agreements, says Nestle, “result in constant advertising through display of company logos on vending machines, cups, sportswear, brochures and school buildings. In this manner, all students in the school, even those too young or too difficult to reach by conventional advertising methods, receive constant exposure to the logos and products. The use of a single brand is designed to create loyalty among young people who have a lifetime of soft drink purchases ahead of them.”

Soft-drink companies are putting vending machines into schools with younger and younger children, and they are putting larger and larger bottles in the machines. By 2001, softdrink companies were routinely placing 20- ounce bottles in school vending machines. In addition, says Nestle, they are vended in portable screw-top plastic bottles that permit sipping throughout the day rather than downing in one gulp. This last feature particularly distresses dental groups alarmed about how the sugar and acid in soft drinks so easily dissolve tooth enamel.

How do the companies justify their practices? A spokesman for Coca-Cola argues that his company “makes no nutritional claims for soft drinks” but they can be part of a balanced diet. Our strategy is we want to put soft drinks within arm’s reach of desire, and schools are one channel we want to make them available in.” As far as government efforts to restrict such marketing practices, “We question whether there is a need for ‘Big Brother’ in the form of USDA injecting itself into decisions when it comes to refreshment choices.”

“Food Politics” is a scholarly work. Reading it, you don’t often get a feel for Nestle’s own personal beliefs. She doesn’t discuss her own diet. She’s not a muckracker. She is an honest, sincere and knowledgeable person working to change the system from the inside. “Food Politics” is an academically scrupulous account of how the food industry in the United States controls government nutrition policies. It’s important and eye-opening reading for anyone looking to make intelligent and informed food choices.

Marion Nestle has been professor and chair of the department of nutrition and food studies at New York University since fall 1988. Her degrees include a PhD in molecular biology and an MPH in public health nutrition, both from the University of California at Berkeley. Visit her site: FoodPolitics.com