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Big Soda, the USDA and School Food

• March 20, 2008 • 5:53 PM

The public is hearing mixed messages on eating right, and a prominent nutritionist believes government needs to cast off its lobbyist-inspired inhibitions and spread the gospel of common sense.

Nutritionist Marion Nestle is not related to Nestlé, the food conglomerate that’s probably best known for its chocolate products. “No accent,” she pointed out about her surname, which rhymes with “trestle.”

But that didn’t stop her from getting the cold shoulder at a European conference she attended some years ago. Nestle — a professor of nutrition, food studies and public health at New York University — couldn’t understand why all her attempts at engaging her European peers were abruptly cut off, until an indignant colleague finally approached her. “You have your nerve showing up here,” he huffed, “with what your company is doing to babies in Africa.” (Nestlé has been the target of a boycott for promoting its infant formula to women in developing nations who critics say can’t easily afford it and often lack access to clean water with which to mix it.)

The irony of that case of mistaken identity becomes immediately clear when talking to Nestle, the author of such books as Food Politics, Safe Food, and What to Eat. A sharp critic of food companies and an advocate of government regulation of food marketing, Nestle is hard to mistake for a food industry flack. “You cannot trust industry to do what’s right for children,” she declared. “Their job is not to do right by children; their job is to sell products.”

She doesn’t give her own profession a free pass. “Nutrition is very complicated, and I don’t think nutritionists help it much by giving dietary advice that’s often tainted by politics … and by not knowing how people live and (by not) understanding it. You can tell somebody ’til you’re blue in the face to eat this or to make better choices, but unless those better choices are easy, people can’t do it.”

A case in point is the currently popular dietary advice to eat several small meals per day. Said Nestle, “For most people, it’s very bad advice. Because it’s (meal size is) not small. Snacking is what makes people gain weight. There’s evidence that shows the more times a day you eat, the more calories you take in.”

Although a study published in the British Medical Journal found that eating six small meals a day can help lower cholesterol levels, the strategy often ends up being touted as a weight-loss method, and according to the examples Nestle cites, this confusion is typical.

“When the FDA pushed for trans fat labeling on products, PepsiCo was one of the first companies to see the writing on the wall and get the trans fats out (of its products),” she noted. “They put big signs on all of their products — ‘no trans fats.’ And we now have plenty of evidence that the public interprets that as no calories — and a health food. It has nothing to do with calories, because whatever replaces the trans fat will have just as many calories.” According to Nestle, consumers also believe that food labeled as organic has no calories.

Nestle doesn’t blame these misperceptions on consumers, though. “Most people get their education about nutrition from the food industry,” she contended. “The government spends essentially zero on basic nutritional advice for the public.

“The big problem now is obesity,” she continued. “If the government were going to advise people what to do about obesity, they would have to say, ‘Eat less,’ and they would have to say what to eat less of. It’s just not possible for a government agency to do that. They would have to say, ‘(Eat fewer) soft drinks, snack foods.’ As long as we have election campaigns that are funded by corporations, that’s just not going to happen.”

In Food Politics, Nestle includes dietary guidelines from a 1959 book that are strikingly similar to the nutritional guidance Americans receive today: Restrict saturated fat, salt and refined sugar; eat lots of fresh fruit and vegetables; control weight, get regular exercise and minimize stress.

Asked why more people haven’t gotten the message when this information has been available for at least half a century, Nestle responded, “The word is out, but the environment of food choice makes it almost impossible for people to follow that advice, because all of the pressure is to eat more—and to eat more of the wrong kinds of food.”

The pressure starts early, with vending machines and fast food chains a significant presence on school campuses — something Nestle vociferously opposes. “Vending machines in schools was like the invasion of the Pandora’s box,” she said. “When I was writing Food Politics, the size (of soft drinks) went from 12 to 20 ounces in school soda machines, and that meant that they went from 150 to 275 calories. And they packaged them — this is so insidious, you don’t even think about it — in screw-top bottles so that the kids could carry them around with them all day, so they’re sipping on soft drinks all day long. You’ve got to get rid of the vending machines in the schools. They shouldn’t be there in the first place.”

Nestle believes that such deliberate targeting of children in the marketing strategies of food and beverage companies is unethical, which is why she suggests there is a role for government regulation in improving Americans’ diets. “We have unbridled capitalism at work here,” she said. “I think capitalism is fine, but you need to bridle it a little. There needs to be some kind of check and balances, and the only thing that can do that is government. You have to have government involved.”

Nestle disputes the argument that mandating healthier food choices is a form of elitism. Being more conscious of one’s food choices, she said, is “a new social movement. It’s very inclusive and democratic.” Nestle also maintains that what food conglomerates promote as consumer choice is anything but. “I don’t think people have a choice; they just don’t realize that they don’t. You only have a choice of what’s available and what you can afford. If what is available is junk food, that’s what you’re going to eat.

“It’s not as if we have a level playing field here,” she continued. “If we have a level playing field, then we have informed consumers, we have a variety of choices at the same price point, and then if people want to choose junk foods under those circumstances, that’s their right. One of the wonderful things about being an adult is you get to eat anything you want. But I think poor people want to feed their kids well; they want their kids to be healthy. They just don’t have the same kind of choices. They don’t have access; they don’t have money; they don’t have the education. And companies target low-income communities for advertising of junk foods.”

More than regulation, though, caring is something Nestle emphasizes again and again in conversation. Discussing the recent recall by the USDA of 143 million pounds of beef — much of which had been sent to school lunch programs — due to evidence that the processor had sent sick cattle to slaughter in violation of federal regulations, Nestle said, “The school lunch program is looking for the lowest cost possible. That’s one of the reasons why that company had low costs. That’s just the government saving money. Because poor kids eat school lunches, right? Their parents don’t vote; some of them are illegal immigrants. Nobody cares. In situations where people do care, they’re able to be much more respectful about it, and the kids eat better.

“We don’t need terrorists to mess up our food supply,” she continued. “We’re doing a great job of it ourselves: 143 million pounds of ground beef! You just need somebody not paying attention or not caring. Where was he (the plant’s on-site USDA inspector)? Not paying attention.”

Nestle recounts an experience she had touring a meat-packing plant on Long Island where she found problematic conditions. Plant management declined her offer of advice on improving their food safety procedures, and a few weeks after Nestle’s walk-through, the plant issued a product recall due to listeria contamination — the exact problem Nestle had warned of. “There was an inspector (from the USDA) in the plant,” she recalled, “and I said to the people, ‘What’s with the inspector?’ They said, ‘You could butcher a dog in front of him, and he’d never notice!’ I met the inspector; they were right. He had to check the paperwork. It was boring, routine work. He wasn’t paying any attention to where he was; there was no thinking going on.”

Despite these regulatory failures, Nestle supports government intervention in food policies, such as the city of New York’s recent ban on the use of trans fats by restaurant chains with more than 15 outlets in the city. Nestle says trans fats — vegetable oils made into solids with the addition of hydrogen — are “not poison, but they’re bad.” Their sole purpose, she says, is extending shelf life, and she maintains that substitutes are easily found, noting that New York restaurateurs who voluntarily adopted the no-trans fats policy testified that buying different types of oil cost them $30 per month, an amount she calls “trivial.”

But she is realistic about the benefits of the ban, predicting that whatever trans fat substitutes are used will be unhealthy saturated fats (both types of fat are implicated in raising harmful cholesterol levels and causing heart disease).

“There are people who believe taking trans fats out of the food supply will save thousands and thousands of lives every year,” she said, “but these are people who don’t understand food very well, in my opinion. They don’t understand that the replacement isn’t going to give you the gap between the health effects of trans fats and unsaturated fats. It’s going to give you the gap between trans fats and saturated fats, which is much smaller. But I think it’s OK to be wrong. The Health Department is trying to do something about heart disease in New York City, and this was something they could do, so they went for it, and I think even they are surprised at the level of opposition.”

Also meeting with fierce opposition from a restaurant trade group is the city’s initiative to combat obesity by mandating calorie labeling in fast-food restaurants — something Nestle has long advocated “because people don’t have any sense at all that larger portions have more calories. Everybody laughs when I say that, but in fact, people don’t. So I thought it would be a good way to try to do some teaching. There’s only one study that shows that people will choose the smaller portions. But I think maybe they will, and the restaurants will hate it, because they make money on the larger portions.”

Even she acknowledges the challenges associated with food labeling, however.

“Nobody knows how to read labels, because they’re too complicated. They’ve got numbers on them. At my class on Monday, half the class came in carrying sports drinks they’d been given on the street out in front of the university, and we spent the first 15 minutes of the class deconstructing them. I said, ‘How much sugar does it have?’ They said, ‘Twenty-five grams.’” Then someone pointed out that the bottle contained two servings. “This thing had 50 grams of sugar (a teaspoon is approximately four or five grams) in 12 or 16 ounces. Fifty grams of sugar is 200 calories. That’s 10 percent of the day’s caloric intake for an average person, right there — from sugar. People drink them (sports drinks) because they think they’re healthy. And they’re just sugar water.”

Yet despite a food environment she describes as promoting the consumption of low-nutrition food in large portions all day long, Nestle sees progress being made and is particularly heartened by grassroots efforts all over the country to improve school food. In New York City, she has observed successful initiatives in an elite private school as well as a disadvantaged public school, leading her to witness such unlikely sights as students eating miso soup (“It’s got seaweed in it!” she exclaimed) and teenage boys eating salad.

Nestle again highlighted the issue of caring: “I have this really sort of funny marker of whether a program will succeed or not, and that’s if the school food service director knows the names of the kids. The person who’s serving the food has to care whether the kids are eating it, and that makes the difference. I’ve been to schools where the food was really good, and the kids weren’t eating it, and that’s because nobody cared whether they did or not. There’s a lot of not caring around what goes on in schools, but you go to a place where they do care, and it’s like night and day.”

Amy R. Ramos
Amy R. Ramos began her career working in local government, where she became familiar with numerous public policy issues, including land use and indigent mental health services. She is now an editor and freelance writer. Ramos has a bachelor's degree in comparative literature from Brown University.

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