Digesting the Food Problem

Nutrition expert Marion Nestle speaks in Vienna Sept. 24 at the Kreisky Forum about public health and the impact of marketing

We are what we eat. But what we eat is not only our personal decision. It has always been determined by a complex web of political, cultural and business dynamics. Today more than ever, nutrition is related to issues of environmental destruction, special corporate interests, illnesses and health risks. The way most food is produced depletes our energy reserves, reduces out biodiversity and is considered harmful to soil and air – and to our bodies.

This view is not fear-mongering by radical food purists, but shared by many serious experts in the field. One of the most highly respected among them is Marion Nestle. Nestle, professor in the Department of Nutrition, Food Studies, and Public Health at New York University, points out that soft drinks, fast food, processed and engineered artificial snacks etc. are more cheaply and easily available than fruits or vegetables.

The problem, she argues, is not limited to North America or to the advanced industrial nations. U.S. food processing companies invest some 50 billion dollars abroad annually, and the ensuing and often enforced changes in dietary habits mean that even in poorer countries you can be overfed and undernourished. Marion Nestle will speak on “What to eat: Personal responsibility or social responsibility” at the Kreisky Forum, Sept. 24.

Vienna Review: Professor Nestle, you consider the choice of what to eat a personal as well as a social responsibility. To what extent can people really choose their food?

Nestle: People cannot exercise personal responsibility unless they have real choices.  The rise in rates of obesity must be due to changes in the food environment. Personal responsibility has not changed in the past 20 years; the environment most certainly has. Public institutions are taking less responsibility for food choice and have left a vacuum which food marketers are only too happy to fill. Most people learn what they know about nutrition from food marketing, which has goals in mind that are much different than public health.

Vienna Review: Experts agree that health care and its reform are closely linked to what we eat and to how it is being produced. But this link does not come up much in public debates nor in policy making. What is your take on this? Is change on the horizon?

Nestle: It’s too early to tell, but most of us still have hope.  Obama has a lot on his plate besides food.  Health care is the immediate domestic problem, along with the economy, but international problems are also huge.  Federal prevention efforts mostly involve talk, not action. Congress also seems unwilling to take bold steps to fix our food safety system.  I’m waiting to see what happens before rendering judgment.

Vienna Review: One of the most talked-about phenomena in the nutrition area is the growing obesity trend. “Fat studies” advocates maintain that obesity is not the problem (stories about it are), that it is a biological trait over which people have little control and perhaps even a socially subversive act. How do you see this?

Nestle: I fully understand why overweight people resent discrimination. Discrimination is real and highly unfair.  For overweight people who are fit and do not have risk factors for chronic diseases, it is doubly unfair.  But there is no question that overweight increases the risk of heart disease, stroke, and type 2 diabetes, the last of which is especially clear. It’s not that every overweight person develops insulin resistance; most do not.  But while the percentage who do is small, it is growing precisely in parallel with rising rates of obesity, especially among young children.

Vienna Review: According to Elizabeth Kolbert, US corporation have invested some $55 billion per year in food processing and distribution facilities abroad. Where do you see this going?

Nestle: In the U.S., we have 4,000 calories a day available in the food supply per capita.  There is a limit to how much food can be sold in our country. So of course our companies are interested in expanding into new markets.

Vienna Review:  You were nutrition policy advisor to the Department of Health, and already more than ten years ago you witnessed the food disparagement laws (“veggie libel laws”) and criticized them. Are these laws still operative and effective? If so, what does this mean for public debate?

Nestle: I haven’t heard much about them since Oprah Winfrey was sued by the Texas cattlemen.  Most lawyers I know think the laws could be successfully challenged in court.  But I’d certainly prefer not to be the one who has to do all that.

Vienna Review: Food fads and scares, diets and no-no’s follow each other in regular cycles, magnified by the media and by an endless stream of how-to and guidance books. In view of this flood, what are you trying to achieve with your books and related activities (such as media appearances and talks)?

Nestle: I’m interested in getting audiences interested in food issues that go beyond personal responsibility. I want people to understand how important the food marketing environment is in what we eat.  And I want to encourage everyone to do what they can to improve the food system.

Vienna Review: Your recommendations concerning what to eat (Eat less; mostly plant-based food; move more) are quite commonsensical. Why is it so hard for people to follow them?

Nestle: As I explain in the book, the food marketing environment is a powerful influence on personal food choice. If people don’t recognize how, for example, large portions encourage them to eat more, they can’t eat sensibly. And it takes more than education to fix the overeating problem. You have to fix the environment, which is much harder to do.

Vienna Review: What was your most recent good food?

Nestle: That would be dinner last night with friends who took me to Babbo (a restaurant in New York) to celebrate my earlier appearance on the Colbert Report, a television comedy show.  We shared a great many small dishes, not least because the chef kept sending things out for us to taste. It was great Italian food and I am still digesting.


Marion Nestle is Professor in the Department of Nutrition, Food Studies, and Public Health at New York University, and the author of three prize-winning books: Food Politics: How the Food Industry Influences Nutrition and Health; Safe Food: The Politics of Food Safety; and What to Eat (2006). She writes the Food Matters column for the San Francisco Chronicle, and blogs at www.foodpolitics.com and at the Atlantic Food Channel at http://food.theatlantic.com.

Kreisky Forum,
19., Armbrustergasse 15,
Thursday, Sept. 24, 7pm.
Moderated by Michael Freund.
Welcome: Eva Nowotny, former Austrian Ambassador to the U.S.

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