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Book Review: Food Politics: How the Food Industry Influences Nutrition and Health

  • Subject: [cg] Book Review: Food Politics: How the Food Industry Influences Nutrition and Health
  • From: Alliums <garlicgrower@earthlink.net>
  • Date: Wed, 08 Dec 2004 13:18:29 -0500

Hi, Folks!

Received the book to review before Marion Nestle speaks at the 2004 PASA 
conference. If you'd like to use the review, let me know -- I retain copyright.


Food Politics:  How the Food Industry Influences Nutrition and Health by 
Marion Nestle, University of California Press, 2002.  ISBN:  0-520-24067-7, 
457 pages.

Timing, in life as well as comedy, is everything.  Food Politics was 
published in 2002 just after Eric Schlosser's Fast Food Nation had shocked 
the North American continent.  Now, a new book from a respected 
nutritionist (Chair of New York University's Department of Nutrition, Food 
Studies and Public Health and the managing editor of the 1988 Surgeon 
General's Report on Nutrition in Health) was saying that deception was 
endemic across the entire food industry, not just the fast food 
portion.  Primed on Fast Food Nation, the country was ready to hear 
Nestle's larger message.

People continue to read the book (currently in its seventh printing), not 
just for its surprising statistics, but for Nestle's style.  Here's how she 
sums up agribusiness' current dilemma:

"The food industry is in trouble, in the sense that it is in a hugely 
competitive environment. Our country has available in the food supply 3,900 
calories a day for every man, woman, and child in the country. That's 
roughly twice what the actual population needs. Food companies are beholden 
to stockholders. They have to grow in order to maintain their stock prices. 
We already have 3,900 calories a day and 320,000 different food products in 
the American marketplace. They can't all keep growing in that situation. So 
all they can do is to try to get consumers to eat their products instead of 
somebody else's, or to eat more in general, and they're just terrific at 
doing that.

Remember, that 3,900-calorie-a-day figure is 600 calories higher than it 
was in 1970. A hundred of those calories came just between 2001 and 2002. 
So the food supply is expanding, putting increasing pressure on food 
companies to sell more in a competitive environment"

Her experiences as managing editor of the 1988 Surgeon General's Report on 
Nutrition in Health are equally insightful:

"We were struggling not only with the complexity of nutritional advice but 
also with lobbying activities from food companies, that made it impossible 
for the surgeon general's recommendations to say eat less of anything. So 
if you look at those recommendations, those recommendations are: Choose 
lean meat. The report couldn't say: Eat less meat. Eat a diet moderate in 
sugar. The report could not say: Consume fewer soft drinks. This was, after 
all, the Reagan administration. It was very pro-business, and it really 
wasn't possible to put in any "eat less" messages. That is still true. If 
you look on the Web sites of the major federal organizations and agencies 
that are dealing with the obesity epidemic, not a single one of the says, 
"Eat less." They all talk about activity. Now, mind you, activity's very 
important and I'm for it. But I think we have to talk about diet as well."

If you haven't read this book yet, toss the seed catalogs in the corner for 
a day or so (pick a really blustery day when you're outside as little as 
possible anyway) and take the time to digest it thoroughly.  If you've 
followed the National Organic Standards, the Terminator Technology and 
genetically modified organisms, nothing Nestle says in the sections on 
corporate "Undermining Dietary Advice" and "Working the System" will 
surprise you; however, she provides a larger context for these activities 
than most other websites or books.  Nestle's section on "Exploiting Kids, 
Corrupting Schools" was the first comprehensive look in the general media 
at advertising to children and the exclusive soda contracts in public 
schools.  Her work here was instrumental in convincing school districts to 
either revoke existing contacts or not sign a new one.  The section on 
"Deregulating Dietary Supplements" explains how the supplement industry 
managed to pass the Dietary Supplement Health and Education Act of 1994 
(DSHEA) which allows supplement manufacturers to vary their ingredients 
without reflecting the change on their labels and to make health claims 
without proving that their product fulfills those claims. "Inventing 
Techno-Foods" gives a history of fortified foods in the American 
diet.  Nestle then finished off with a "Conclusion" section that summarizes 
the entire book, plus an appendix on "Issues in Nutrition and Nutrition 
Research" to explain to the layperson how nutrition researchers design 
their studies.

Although sustainable agriculture growers and consumers are considered small 
players (between 2 and 4% of all expenditures on food) in the food 
marketplace, they will never expand into the double digits unless the 
"small players" are fully aware of how the "big players" are controlling 
the game.  Food Politics will give you that knowledge so that you can 
either market or purchase foods with a clear eye on the competition.

Reviewed by Dorene Pasekoff, Coordinator
St. John's United Church of Christ Organic Community Garden
Phoenixville, PA

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