An interview with a food politics and public health expert: Marion Nestle

Cover image via World Economic Forum

Original article posted on PLOS Blogs


Following the launch of her new book, Unsavory Truth: How Food Companies Skew the Science of What We Eat , Marion Nestle answered a few short questions on an important topic of which her writing revolves around, the size of the role food companies are playing in our day-to-day food choices.

Why this book and why now? 

I’ve long been concerned about the way food company sponsorship influences (or, at best, appears to influence) the outcome of research on nutrition and health. I first wrote about the topic in 2001, and discussed Coca-Cola’s research funding in my book, Soda Politics, in 2015. That year, I started posting examples on my blog, foodpolitics.com, and did so for a year. At that point I had collected 168 examples, of which 156 had results that favoured the sponsor’s interests; only one did not.  This was a casual collection but systematic studies also demonstrate this “funding effect.” Then, when reporters were shocked by a New York Times investigation of Coca-Cola’s funding of researchers arguing that physical activity was more important than diet in controlling body weight, I knew I had another book to write. Industry influence is a hot topic these days.  The press reports scandals one after another.

 

Who do you hope reads the book? 

I want everyone to read it who does, thinks about, or acts on scientific findings. I have suggestions for food companies, researchers, reporters, and eaters.

 

The food industry is not a homogenous entity. When it comes to engaging this sector, especially in ‘multi-sectoral’ prevention activities, should we treat it (the industry) equally?

Food companies have one thing in common. They are not social service agencies. They are businesses with stockholders to please. This means that profits are their first priority, no matter what they are selling.  It’s unreasonable to expect them to put public health first.

 

For those of us consuming nutrition research, how might we become more aware of misleading publications?  

Unsavory Truth is a deep dive into how the food industry shapes public understanding of how to eat for better health—from funding research to sponsoring conferences for nutritionists and influencing government agencies.

Unsavory Truth is a deep dive into how the food industry shapes public understanding of how to eat for better health—from funding research to sponsoring conferences for nutritionists and influencing government agencies.

If you aren’t a scientist and do not have access to copies of journal articles, you are dependent on the press to describe current research. There are clues to identifying industry-funded research. I can often recognize the funder by the title of an article or what it claims. The idea that one food or food product has a big impact on health doesn’t really make sense. People eat diets of enormous variety, and health is the result of diet, activity, and a bunch of lifestyle factors as well as genetics. Anything that claims “breakthrough,” “miracle,” “superfood,” or “everything you thought you knew about nutrition is wrong” ought to trigger some raised eyebrows. Use common sense. If a claim seems incredible, it probably is.

 

Lack of resources (especially fiscal) are often cited as a key barrier to overcoming our most pressing health problems. If, as you suggest, we disengage from corporate funding, where might we look for sustained and ethical funding sources?   

This is a huge problem right now, with government funding declining and foundation funding going to the foundation’s research agenda. But food industry funding distorts the research agenda. Investigators would be more likely to be working on other problems if they weren’t working on studies paid for by companies. There is a big difference between calling for studies to demonstrate the benefits of a food or product and those aimed at finding out how diet affects health. But most companies don’t want to risk paying for studies that might not show their products to be beneficial.

 

You’re an incredible communicator. Through your books, you’re able to reach a global audience both within and outside of the nutrition sphere. What advice do you have for academics who want to increase their advocacy and public engagement activities?  

Three suggestions. (1) Get tenure. I am extraordinarily privileged–believe me, I know precisely how privileged–to be able to do the work I do. I came to NYU as a tenured full professor with a full salary, computer, telephone, and first-class library. I didn’t need external funding to write my books. (2) Get a job at an institution like NYU, which takes pride in being a global university with faculty out in the world working for positive change. Other such places exist. Find them. (3) Know what you are talking about. Write carefully. Document carefully. If you want to be treated as an expert, be one and do what it takes to become one. Academics are in a powerful position to make food systems better for people and the planet. Use it.


Marion Nestle is Paulette Goddard Professor of nutrition, food studies, and public health, emerita, at New York University, and Visiting Professor of nutritional sciences at Cornell. She has a PhD in molecular biology and an MPH in public health nutrition from UC Berkeley.

She is the author of Unsavory Truth and six prize-winning books: Food Politics: How the Food Industry Influences Nutrition and Health; Safe Food: The Politics of Food Safety; What to Eat; Why Calories Count: From Science to Politics (with Dr. Malden Nesheim); Eat, Drink Vote: An Illustrated Guide to Food Politics; and Soda Politics: Taking on Big Soda (and Winning). She has also written two books about pet food, Pet Food Politics: The Chihuahua in the Coal Mineand Feed Your Pet Right (also with Dr. Nesheim).