Last night I was grateful and honored to have a reserved seat for a talk given by Dr. Marion Nestle at The University of Washington to a sold-out audience of over 400 students, faculty members, and food policy buffs (the lecture was open to the general public).
What follows is a bullet-point, Cliffs Notes style recap of Dr. Nestle’s presentation; consider it a crash course in food politics 101!
- Loved Dr. Nestle’s first slide. It showed this simple linear progression: Agriculture —> Food —-> Nutrition —> Public Health. Appreciated how it summarized the links and connections so clearly, and demonstrated that in order to have optimal nutrition and public health, the agricultural system plays a pivotal role.
- Also loved hearing Dr. Nestle’s description of how she describes herself: “a food systems researcher, from production to consumption”. Interesting to think of human health as an off-shoot of food systems, rather than a detached field of study.
- She identified five key areas in food politics: food insecurity, obesity, food safety, emerging food movements, and marketing to children.
- In terms of food insecurity, Dr. Nestle pointed out that the solutions to this problem should be approached from a social, not technological viewpoint. Examples included: sustainable agriculture (which require political stability and income equity), access to clean air and water, and empowerment of women. This, of course, is in contrast to those who think the “answer” to world hunger lies Monsanto-patented seeds.
- Obesity rates began to increase sharply in the 1980s. As Dr. Nestle pointed out, this begs the question: “Did people start eating more, moving less, or doing both?”
- Although data on physical activity is scarce, all indications show that activity rates have increased since the 1980s, or at the very least have not decreased.
- Food consumption has certainly increased. If you go by food production figures, there were 3,200 calories available per person in the United States at the beginning of the 1980s. That figure has since increased to 3,900 calories. Survey data on caloric consumption shows an average of 1,900 calories per person in the early ’80s, and 2,100 calories now. As Dr. Nestle pointed out, though, “everyone lies about how much they eat, and it appears they lie consistently”. The truth, she believes, is somewhere in the middle. While per capita caloric intake has not increased by 700 calories over the past thirty years, it is hard to believe it has only increased by 200.
- One factor behind increased intake over the past thirty years is agricultural policy, which in the late 1970s shifted from “a system which paid farmers to not grow food versus one that pays them to grow as much as possible.”
- Another big factor? The “Shareholder Value Movement”, where Wall Street moved towards an ideology that “corporations should be valued for giving immediate results, rather than consistent small gains over a long period of time”. Consequence? Companies have no other choice but to sell more to grow, especially since they must publish quarterly reports. AKA: food companies are under tremendous pressure to consistently increase profits. How do they achieve that? By finding new ways to market.
- One thing I respect and appreciate about Dr. Nestle is her cool-headed approach to these issues. As she so brilliantly summed it up: “Food companies are not doing this out of evil intent to make everyone obese, this is simply the normal consequence of our economic system.”
- A few slides demonstrated the ubiquity of food these days. Dr. Nestle got quite a laugh out of the audience when a photograph of a coffee shop inside a Borders bookstore popped up on her Powerpoint presentation, and she asked, with the right amount of dry wit, “when did it become okay to eat in bookstores?”
- Cost is another significant factor behind the growth of fast food and junk food. At McDonald’s, for example, $5 can buy five burgers from the dollar menu (mostly made from crop subsidies) or one salad (crop subsidies are abundant in dressings, but not the salad itself).
- Proximity is the third way in which food companies try to sell more. Case in point — vending machines at schools. Data clearly shows that the more vending machines a school has, the more products are purchased. And, alas, the more products are purchased, the more calories are consumed.
- The last section of Dr. Nestle’s talk had to do with food industry marketing, and was pre-empted by a glowing review of Michele Simon’s book Appetite for Profit: How The Food Industry Undermines Our Health and How To Fight Back (one of my official “Recommended Reads” I was very fortunate to offer to all of you as part of a giveaway earlier this year).
- FDA-approved health claims, of course, started off this part of the lecture. Despite having four times more sugar than fiber per serving, Chocolate Cheerios are allowed to claim on the front of the box that they “may reduce risk of heart disease” (followed by a tiny asterisk, of course). Dr. Nestle pointed out that while the FDA is gun-shy when it comes to voicing concerns regarding far-reaching health claims, the Federal Trade Commission has been doing its part (as evidenced by its current legal battle with the makers of POM Wonderful).
- Then, there are functional foods (think cookies with a sprinkle of omega-3 added on). According to sales data, these products are surefire best-sellers. Expect many more with each passing year.
- Self-endorsements are another hot topic. This refers to industry-created guidelines for what makes a product “healthy” (perfect example: Kellogg’s Smart Choices program, which came under severe scrutiny in the fall of 2009.).
- Fascinating tidbit: When Hannaford supermarkets in New England conducted an objective analysis of the nutritional content of all their offerings in 2006 (via a team of nutrition scientists), only 24 percent of 27,500 products qualified as worthy of receiving anywhere from 1 to 3 stars (items deemed “healthful” were awarded one to three stars depending on a variety of criteria). Here’s the kicker: eighty percent of the star-worthy items were fruits and vegetables in the produce department!
- Marketing to children was also explored, particularly in regards to what Dr. Nestle referred to as UFOs — Unidentified Food Objects that are branded as “kids’ food”.
- Lastly, the food industry’s financial clout was discussed. In 2009 alone, Kellogg’s spent $20.9 million advertising Frosted Flakes and $20.3 million advertising Froot Loops. Each of those figures is higher than what Michelle Obama has in her budget for the federal “Let’s Move” campaign. Let that sink in.
- Dr. Nestle concluded by stressing that the best advocacy starts at the individual and local level. She is hopeful about the significant increase in farmers markets in the country as well as the emerging locavore movement. As she explained it, it is much easier to support local farms in one’s own community than it is to change Wall Street.
Oh, here’s one extra tidbit that got me really excited. Dr. Nestle is currently penning a book on calories. I heard about this as an idea almost two years ago, but it is now a confirmed project. How refreshing to have someone with a firm grasp of nutritional biochemistry writing a book about a subject that has been misinterpreted and misconstrued for so long!
Many thanks to Dr. Nestle for inviting me to her presentation.