Volume 42, Number 4: July/August 2008

Review: Food Politics

Food Politics: How the Food Industry Influences Nutrition and Health
by Marion Nestle
University of California Press, 2007

If ever there was an appropriate title for a book, Food Politics is it. Author Marion Nestle provides extensively researched documentation that food is not simply about sustenance – it is highly political. Who would think that something as innocuous as the Food Pyramid could be so contentious? Nestle purveys her work experience on various nutrition committees into a most revealing look at the disturbing, behind-the-scenes workings and power of the U.S. food industry.

Food Politics is divided into five parts. Part One details how food-industry lobbyists have manipulated language so that dietary advice given in the food pyramid has become difficult enough for nutritionists to decipher, let alone the ordinary person.

In Part Two, Nestle discusses how profit is a high-stakes pursuit and reveals just how far the food industry will go to protect its economic interests, including resorting to legal threats.

The most disturbing section by far is Part Three, which details how food of little nutritional value is deliberately marketed to kids. She gives a thorough explanation of deals for “pouring rights” and “Channel One” advertising brokered between food and soft-drink makers and cash-strapped schools, often in poor communities. Under the guise of assistance, the food and soft-drink industries make millions of dollars without any thought to the social implications for the children to whom they are marketing.

Part Four is a dizzy account of the under-regulated dietary-supplement industry, and how much money and effort are put into keeping it that way.

Part Five explains the various kinds of “techno-foods,” as Nestle calls them, as well as how these foods are classified as “functional foods.”

Nestle outlines some of the ethical dilemmas of applying the 2000 Dietary Guidelines, and offers some sound recommendations that regulatory agencies like the FDA and the USDA could take to ensure that consumers are provided with appropriate information without adversely affecting the food industry.

Nestle also questions some of the regulatory changes that have been made since the 2002 edition of this book. Some of these include the 2005 Dietary Guidelines, which in theory should be more science-based, but remain questionable as some of the committee members were receiving funds from food companies. The recommendations for dairy intake have also been the subject of extensive lobbying by the dairy industry.

The most hopeful part of this book is the growing role of health and nutrition advocates. In their efforts to stop the rising epidemic of obesity, they have lobbied successfully to get food manufacturers and fast-food restaurants to provide nutritional content of foods and to discontinue the use of trans fats. They have also let the food industry know that marketing junk food to children is no longer an acceptable business practice. The food industry’s response has been to self-regulate – but so far, most are not doing so.

Food Politics is good background reading for Nestle’s Safe Food: Bacteria, Biotechnology, and Bioterrorism – especially Part Five, which addresses techno-foods. In a Canadian context, many of us rely on Canada’s Food Guide as a source of balanced nutrition – but we may well need to pay closer attention to what is recommended and why that is so.

Everyone can relate to the idea that at various points in their lives they will suffer from some kind of food-borne illness – but they also think that this is generally due to their own carelessness. But are more than 76 million annually reported cases of food-borne illnesses in the U.S. just a matter or carelessness?