NYU professor, author criticizes U.S. food industry

Marion Nestle said the government needs to create more legislation to take control of and regulate the country's agriculture

Marion Nestle thinks the United States should overhaul its food regulation policies.

“You can’t understand anything about food in America, or anything else in the world, without understanding how the agriculture system works,” said Nestle.

Nestle, a long-time healthy eating activist and Paulette Goddard professor in the Department of Nutrition, Food Studies, and Public Health at New York University, often becomes the target of lawsuits from big food companies. Sugar Association, for example, threatened to sue her in 2011 for calling high-fructose corn syrup “sugar”. High-fructose corn syrup has nearly the same chemical composition as sucrose.

Photo: Brandon Weight
Marion Nestle outlined her discoveries on nutrition and food politics during her Tuesday presentation for the University Lecture series.

On Tuesday evening, Nestle spoke in Hendricks Chapel as part of the University Lectures series about what led to the increasing obesity rates in American society and why an interests-oriented food industry cannot serve the public’s well-being. Nestle’s new book, Why Calories Count: From Science to Politics, was published in April 2012.

Nestle said regionalizing, instead of industrializing, American farms will help build a new consumption culture that values fresh and natural foods. It will benefit local farmers and the local economy, and at the same time, protect the environment and prevent pollution, she said.

Nestle said it doesn’t make sense that the government spent billions of dollars on corn and soy beans, yet almost nothing on fresh food and vegetables, even though food and vegetables should make up half of one’s daily food consumption, according to federal nutrition policy.

“We have a big dichotomy between agriculture policy and public health policy,” Nestle said.

This disconnection, Nestle indicated, has led to severe consequences, including the increasing obesity rate of the U.S. population.

The rate of obesity began to rapidly grow since 1980 because of the increasing calorie intake of Americans, Nestle said. One-third of the American population is considered to be obese and more than two-thirds of the population is considered overweight, according to the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey in 2003–06 and 2007–08.

Three changes that happened in the 1980s led to obesity rate’s surge: A change of agriculture policy that accounted for food surplus, a transformation of Wall Street policy to demand high immediate returns when evaluating companies and a deregulation of food marketing when junk foods were being heavily advertised to the young generation, Nestle said.

“The result of all these was a change of the society, which people didn’t notice because they were living through it,” Nestle said.

Those policies also made fresh food much more expensive than other kinds of food. Nestle said it is bizarre that people can use $5 to either buy five hamburgers at McDonalds, or only one salad.

The index price of fresh food went up by 40 percent while the index price for soda and peanut butter went down by 15 to 30 percent from 1980s to 2009, Nestle said.

“Food companies did not sit around and say how to make people fat, they sat at their conference tables and said, ‘How are we going to sell our products,’” Nestle said. “The result of that is a food environment that encourages people to eat more.”

Nestle said she doubts the food industry itself could actually “play a constructive role in the obesity epidemic,” since the only goal the market really goes after is earning more money. The best way to improve public health and food safety and is government regulation and advocacy, she said.

Nestle praised “The Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act” signed by President Barack Obama in 2010, which authorized the U.S. Department of Agriculture to set nutritional rules for school meals. She also applauded the ban passed in September by the New York City Board of Health on selling sodas larger than 16 ounces, a measure championed by New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg. According to an old print advertisement Nestle showed, a 16-ounce Coca-Cola used to serve three people.

At the end of the lecture, Nestle encouraged the audience to exercise more and eat less, and also try to influence their politicians to pass legislation that will benefit public health.

Joshua Walls, a sports management sophomore at Syracuse University, said he was extremely concerned about the issue of obesity because it may lead to high cholesterol, heart disease and diabetes.

“She [Nestle] talked about a lot of the policies that is going on right now. This helps to ensure that everybody has the ability to access healthier eating habits,” said Walls

Amanda Prestor, a registered dietician, said people are not eating healthy because of the marketing of big food companies.

“It seems very negative when you looked at the marketing for nutrition,” said Prestor “But she [Nestle] is very optimistic about what we can do, and make changes that can actually happen.”

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