Episode 03: Marion Nestle
Marion Nestle, NYU’s Paulette Goddard Professor of Nutrition, Food Studies, and Public Health, Emerita, founded the nation’s first academic food studies program at Steinhardt in 1988, helping to forge an interdisciplinary field that looks at food as a complex social and political issue. As a research-based scientist with a PhD in molecular biology, she has examined the role of food marketing on food choice, obesity, and food safety, and emerged as an eminent public voice in challenging the food industry’s claims about the nutritional value of its products.
The author of nine books—most recently Unsavory Truth: How Food Companies Skew the Science of What We Eat— Nestle received the James Beard Leadership Award in 2013 and was named the #2 most influential foodie in America (after Michelle Obama) by Michael Pollan in 2011.
Andy Hamilton Interviews Marion Nestle:
Subway Conductor [00:00:02] This is West 8th Street, New York University.
Announcer [00:00:11] From New York University, you're listening to Conversations hosted by President Andy Hamilton. In each episode, Andy talks insight, inquiry, and imagination with a leading mind from the NYU community.
President Andy Hamilton [00:00:32] Today we welcome Marion Nestle, NYU Paulette Goddard Professor Emerita of Nutrition, Food Studies, and Public Health. Marion founded the nation's first academic food studies program here at Steinhardt in 1988 helping to forge an interdisciplinary field that looks at food as a complex social and political issue. Marion is the author of nine books most recently "Unsavory Truth: How Food Companies Skew the Science of What We Eat." She received the James Beard Leadership Award in 2013, and was named the number two most influential foodie in America, second only to Michelle Obama. She was named that by Michael Pollan in 2011.
President Andy Hamilton [00:01:32] As you have taught and as you've described the the field of nutrition and food science that you've been teaching at Steinhardt over these years have you found the reaction of students in your classes has changed?
Professor Marion Nestle [00:01:53] Well you have to understand that I came to NYU to chair a department of home economics. The department had to change. The students now are part of what I would consider to be the food movement. They are vitally interested in important social problems that affect the United States and the world and see food as a way to address those problems. They want to change the world for the better. They're fabulous, and wonderful to teach and I'm so privileged to be able to do that. But I think that they the students reflect general societal trends towards a greater and greater interest in these kinds of issues. But the issues are still the same because the problems are still the same. We haven't solved the problem of poverty. We haven't solved the problem of poor diets. We haven't solved the problem of the effect of our agricultural system on the environment and climate.
Andy Hamilton [00:02:57] Do you feel we've made progress?
Marion Nestle [00:03:00] Well yes and no. On the no side, we don't have famine but the Food and Agriculture Organization has just come out with its latest calculation of the number of people who are considered to be food insecure or hungry. And that number has increased steadily since 2014. So no, we haven't solved that problem, it just occurs in different ways. And that is a problem of poverty, mainly poor education and not enough money. On the other hand, there are ways in which the food supply is much better. You can get fruits and vegetables and healthier foods in every supermarket in America now. 30 years ago that was not the case.
Andy Hamilton [00:03:42] You know one of the things that you focused your career on is raising our collective consciousness around food, around food security as you've been saying, around food production, the politics and the business of food production. How do you summarise why and how we got to where we are today?
Marion Nestle [00:04:08] Well let me start from where we were when we started. When we established the undergraduate masters and doctoral programs in food studies, I remember spending an hour at dinner one night with the then provost trying to convince him that food was a reasonable subject for academic study. I don't think he was ever convinced, but usually I'm pretty good at explaining what food has to do.
Andy Hamilton [00:04:37] It obviously worked, with the success of the program.
Marion Nestle [00:04:41] The way that I describe the reason why food is so important is first of all everybody eats so it affects everyone personally. But it's an enormous business under-nutrition and over-nutrition are among the most significant public health problems that the world has to deal with and it's more than a trillion dollar a year business in the United States alone. For that reason alone, it has enormous implications for how our society works. Plus, agriculture has a big effect on greenhouse gas emissions. And so that's every problem that you can think of is one that somehow food relates to and we just use food as an entry point into all of those problems. But it's really those problems that we're interested in studying.
Andy Hamilton [00:05:34] In your recent book "Unsavory Truth," you focus on one aspect of this relationship between the business of food production and research into the benefits, the impact of different food choices. Now you use a couple of examples: Coca-Cola is a particularly egregious one where research was funded that claimed to establish that lack of exercise was the cause of obesity, not sugary drinks. How do you feel that issue of conflict of interest is being addressed?
Marion Nestle [00:06:22] Well I think it's an enormous problem. Obviously that's why I spent three years writing a book on it. Essentially, I tried to do for food what has been done for cigarettes, chemicals, climate change, and pharmaceutical drugs demonstrating how the industries that are involved in those areas fund research in their own interest and behave in ways if you could talk about corporation, corporate behavior behave in ways that work in their self-interest and in the interests of their stockholders at the expense, often at the expense of public health. Industry funded research almost invariably comes out in the interest of the sponsor. People who take that money for doing research do not recognize that the money has any influence on what they do, design, conduct, or interpret; they think it has nothing to do with it. But much research demonstrates that it has a big influence. And it's very difficult to deal with if the influence is unconscious and people don't recognize, it's very hard to know what to do about it and nobody knows what to do about this really, because everybody wants the money. The easiest way to solve problems of conflicts of interest is just not to take the money. But that raises its own sets of problems.
Andy Hamilton [00:07:51] A fascinating issue it does raise! And one that that there's no easy answer is the complicit role of universities. Our career structures the the way in which career success is defined in some areas by research funding. And that concern is one that we all in the university world should recognize.
Marion Nestle [00:08:20] Oh it's an enormous problem because there's tremendous pressure on faculty to get grants. It's not enough just to do the kind of research that I do that doesn't require grants. You're really expected to bring in money to pay students and postdocs and so forth, and the universities are under enormous pressure-they want the overhead that comes with federal grants; they need the overhead that comes with federal grants. States have stopped supporting universities. It's just money is a very big driver.
Andy Hamilton [00:08:55] What's the role of the media in this?
Marion Nestle [00:08:57] You're asking that question at a time when the media is in big trouble. You know theyir funding models don't work anymore. And therefore, many people who used to work for something like a newspaper that would fund investigative reports that would go on for a year, the investigations would go on for months and months and months, they can't afford to do that anymore. A lot of people are freelancing and need money and are willing to overlook a lot of these questions; they're not asking questions about who's funding the research or whether there's a vested interest behind some of the research results. I wish they would. I wrote this book in the hopes of raising the issue to the point where people would start paying more attention to it. That was part of the point of doing this.
Andy Hamilton [00:10:03] I know that many will want to hear about your thoughts on food and your thoughts on obesity beyond the policy side and the politics dimension. And certainly the debate over obesity is it just a question?Counting calories is it just a question of combining food intake with exercise or would you say it's far more complex than that?
Marion Nestle [00:10:35] Yeah I think eating less works every time. You know as far as I can tell, all attempts to demonstrate that one food is better than another food have failed, and it's still a question of how much you eat and how much you move, mostly how much you eat. The easiest way to lose weight is to eat less. Sorry. One of the really depressing parts about getting older is your metabolism slows down. You can't eat the way you used to. So you have to eat less. And for many people that is very difficult and we have a food system, this gets us back into politics, that's absolutely designed to get people to eat more and to eat more of the most highly profitable foods and that means junk foods.
Andy Hamilton [00:11:23] Yeah yeah. You know that that has so many dimensions to that statement, but I think all of us who engages as you said, this is something that affects everyone. You know there are so many dimensions to food and you talk about it in your different books of the of course the metabolic and the requirement for us to eat. But the psychological dimension. We've all, you know pulled a pint of ice cream out of the fridge with a spoon at the end of a bad day and there's a psychological dimension to food.
Marion Nestle [00:12:01] Absolutely. It's one of life's greatest pleasures!
Andy Hamilton [00:12:07] It is! There's also a physicality. For me it is something that I often find myself fighting and the appearance of food. We only have to look at articles in magazines...
Marion Nestle [00:12:21] And then we're salivating away.
Andy Hamilton [00:12:22] Recipes and the way food looks and feels. One of my shameful addictions is potato chips. 90 percent of the experience of potato chips is the crunch, it's the physical feeling inside your mouth. And so how do we go beyond that?
Marion Nestle [00:12:46] May I just say something about potato chips?
Andy Hamilton [00:12:48] Please do.
Marion Nestle [00:12:48] You'll be happy to know that the Japanese have just added gold leaf to potato chips as a new snack food for 2019.
Andy Hamilton [00:12:57] So a way that I can consume my money even faster.
Marion Nestle [00:13:01] Conspicuously. Conspicuous consumption the prototype.
Andy Hamilton [00:13:07] However, not go into too much detail, as a chemist, I know that gold goes straight through.
Marion Nestle [00:13:15] It has no calories.
Andy Hamilton [00:13:15] It is untouched all the way through the G.I. tract. But I do think that's a fascinating dimension, as you say junk food, so much of junk food of its appeal is the physicality.
Marion Nestle [00:13:30] The crunch, the taste, the mixture of salt and other flavors. So they're very good at that.
Andy Hamilton [00:13:37] They are. But is that, is that necessarily wrong or is it just Marion moderation in all things.
Marion Nestle [00:13:47] It's moderation! It's just that moderation is not something that Americans do very easily.
Andy Hamilton [00:13:52] Let me, let me be a little provocative because you made a comment earlier rightly about a great benefit of recent years is greater availability of healthy food. And there's no question that we can see fresh vegetables, we can see organic food now available. But we both know one of the consequences of the organic aisle in the supermarket is that prices are higher. And so that inevitably takes us into...
Marion Nestle [00:14:28] Politics!
Andy Hamilton [00:14:28] Even more the socioeconomics of food. And you know that healthy food is more expensive. It inevitably has a deeply undesirable consequence from a societal point of view.
Marion Nestle [00:14:46] Yes, it's elitist.
Andy Hamilton [00:14:47] It's elitist, it's hard for those with less to eat more healthily and obviously that then often one finds cheaper food just as you said is junkier food because it's mass produced this process. It's not suffering many of the issues that require great cost in transport and distribution and the like. How do we think about that, how do we tackle that?
Marion Nestle [00:15:18] We think about it from a political standpoint because the government's ways of supporting food production support fuel for automobiles, food for animals, not for people, and very little of our agricultural support system is for food. It's for fuel or feed. This is a political decision that is maintained through intense lobbying by the companies that own corn and soybeans and the alcohol in the fuel industries. The producers of fruits and vegetables don't have anywhere near that kind of political clout. And that's a societal decision to make the cost of human food more expensive than the cost of what we feed animals.
Andy Hamilton [00:16:11] In New York City, we had a mayor, Mayor Bloomberg a few years ago who made some of these issues very high priority in his administration and sought to limit the size of carbonated sodas in convenience stores, to have calorie counts put into fast food. Was that successful? Do you think that was the right approach? Is that something that you would like to see extended.
Marion Nestle [00:16:49] Yes I'd like to see much more. The Health Department under Mayor Bloomberg was extremely active in trying to address obesity. The current Health Department under Mayor de Blasio has just put out a series of advertisements equating sugar sweetened beverages with cigarettes. That's a pretty strong message. Bloomberg's attempt to put a cap on the size of sugar sweetened beverages was an interesting idea. It got slapped down very hard and the American Beverage Association came in and attempted to bribe the city to stop doing that. It took the city to court one on a ridiculous technicality, but one. So that never got anywhere but I think the more you try these kinds of things the more it encourages other places to try other kinds of things. We need these kinds of initiatives in order to create a food environment that's healthier for people and the planet.
Andy Hamilton [00:17:55] In terms of large industrialized countries, you know, we look at France or Germany or the U.K., do they have policies that you think could be beneficial to reproduce here or not?
Marion Nestle [00:18:12] They have a health care system. We don't! For starters you start with a health care system. And the minute you get a health care system that works, you've got to focus on prevention which means healthy diets and physical activity and education because it keeps your health care costs down.
Andy Hamilton [00:18:33] So a focus on prevention that then inevitably brings obesity and one's food into focus.
Marion Nestle [00:18:42] Yeah, because you look at who is healthiest, and the people who are healthiest have the most money and the best education.
Andy Hamilton [00:18:49] How do you think about getting your messages to those who are more easily influenced by the media, and I think particularly kids?
Marion Nestle [00:19:04] Well I think that first, if we're going to pass regulations, the first one I want to see is to stop food companies from selling junk food, from marketing to children. Food company executives have told me that that's their line in the sand. They have to market to children or else they can't sell their products and their stockholders get very peeved. So that's an enormous problem. A study just came out this week that showed that 4 year olds who were exposed to commercials for sugary breakfast cereals asked for those sugary cereals and ate those cereals and pestered their parents for them. Four year olds! Those advertisements are being aimed at 4 year olds. And I think that has to stop. And until that stops, parents are up against an enormous industry that's trying to get their kids to eat junk food. They're fighting and they don't even see it, but they're fighting any enormous enormous industry that's marketing junk foods, sugary drinks, and other kinds of fast foods, sugary breakfast cereals and all those other things to their kids. I think that's wrong.
Andy Hamilton [00:20:29] I think about the media attention that comes by quite routinely about the creation of a superfood or the identity of you know red wine, chocolate, even something a little more seemingly desirable as blueberries. These quote unquote "super foods" that make you more intelligent, improve your memory, whatever the factors may be, how do you react to those presumably in a similar way that they massively oversimplify?
Marion Nestle [00:21:14] Well I think we must be hardwired in some way to respond to those kinds of health messages. And of course the marketers know it and they hire very impressive psychologists to work with them to make sure that the marketing works this way. But marketing the antioxidants in blueberries save the main blueberry industry. It wasn't selling nearly enough blueberries but when it started saying blueberries have more antioxidants than any other fruit, people started buying them even though there's very little evidence that antioxidants make very much difference to health. You know I think eat blueberries if you like them that's fine, I happen to love them. So I'm happy about blueberries. But nearly every healthy food, fruit and vegetable has started doing this now because they're competing for market share just like every other business. And so you have the pecan lobby and the walnut lobby and the pomegranate lobby and whatever, every fruit and vegetable is funding research to try to demonstrate that its product has what I could have them me to begin with: vitamins, minerals, fiber, and antioxidants. All fruits and vegetables have those. Is there such a thing as a super food? Absolutely not. But we respond to that and I think that human response is something that the marketers play on and use. But I think it's hardwiring in some way.
Andy Hamilton [00:22:49] Lobbyists come in a number of different forms and you've touched upon the sort of corporate lobbies. We have lobbies in other areas and I'm thinking about genetically modified foods for example. Touch upon this controversial area that fascinatingly is viewed quite differently in Europe than it is in the U.S. I'd like your thoughts. Is that something that we should all be concerned about or do you feel it's an overconcern,the opposition to genetically modified foods?
Marion Nestle [00:23:31] I wrote about this issue in a book called "Safe Food" that came out in 2003, and half the book is about exactly what you mentioned, the different views of Europeans to Americans about genetically modified foods. I think genetically modified foods are safe. But I think there are reasons to be concerned about them that go way beyond safety. One is that this is an industry that is the opposite of transparent. It has done everything possible to keep the public from knowing about the technology which is admittedly very complicated, and has punished people who've criticized it for any reason whatsoever. It takes any criticism of genetically modified foods as being an attack on the whole science and the whole industry and it groups people who have critical things to say in the same category as climate change deniers and vaccine deniers. So there is an ugliness about this that goes way beyond what I would consider to be reasonable scientific debate and that's disturbing.
Andy Hamilton [00:24:48] You mean almost an excessive defensiveness?
Marion Nestle [00:24:51] Oh and defensiveness to the point of really ugly attack. I couldn't write about genetically modified foods on my website without being attacked by hundreds of trolls saying exceptionally nasty things. I finally had to cut off comments on the website.
Andy Hamilton [00:25:12] Presumably from both sides?
Marion Nestle [00:25:12] Oh no no no. The pro GMO side.
Andy Hamilton [00:25:19] Let me touch upon another similarly controversial area of a lot of focus rightly in recent years has been on animal welfare.
Marion Nestle [00:25:29] Yes.
Andy Hamilton [00:25:30] And you know that that adds another intriguing dimension. Should we all become vegetarians or vegans? Or are there nutritional consequences to those decisions that may not be right for everyone?
Marion Nestle [00:25:48] Yeah I'm not a vegan but I'm greatly in favor of animal welfare which I guess is a complicated position to have these days. I think the evidence is pretty clear that a largely plant based diet is the healthiest diet that people can eat. If you look at healthy diets from around the world, the one thing they have in common is that they're largely, but not necessarily exclusively based on plant foods.
Andy Hamilton [00:26:16] Is that true also for children?
Marion Nestle [00:26:17] Yeah I mean it's largely but not exclusively. Largely but not exclusively. The one nutrient that is found only in foods of animal origin is Vitamin B12 and someone who was a strict vegetarian and eats no animal products whatsoever.
Andy Hamilton [00:26:35] I mean I could draw you the chemical structure of vitamin B12.
Marion Nestle [00:26:39] If you did that I would be overwhelmed because it's incredibly complicated. It's incredibly complex and has many rings. If I remember correctly.
Andy Hamilton [00:26:52] It does. It's closely related to the structure of heme of hemoglobin and chlorophyll in green plants.
Marion Nestle [00:26:58] Right, complicated structures quite beautiful if you like that sort of thing. And I do. But so you have to find a source of Vitamin B12 and there is evidence from developing countries that young children who are fed animal products tend to have better nutritional status than children who are fed only vegetarian diets but those vegetarian diets tend to be very limited in variety. The rules for vegetarian diets are the same as for diets in general. You want a wide variety of foods as unprocessed as possible. I mean that's the basic principle. So I think what the animal welfare proponents are doing is very, I've been to industrial animal production facilities and I can tell you that could be done a lot better. So I'm with them on that one.
Andy Hamilton [00:27:54] While on the subject of animal welfare, I've been intrigued to watch your focus in the last couple of years also shift to animal food and particularly the pet food industry. As we all recognize every time we go to the supermarket and see the size of the pet food aisle, this is a huge industry, I think 60 billion dollars a year in the US. Just briefly, time is running out, but briefly your perspectives on the animal food industry, the pet food industry.
Marion Nestle [00:28:32] Well we need it. We need it because if we didn't have it we would be wasting what my co-author and I calculated as food for 30 million people in the United States. We would need to produce the amount of food for the equivalent of 30 million people if we didn't feed pets the byproducts of human food production. So it's a terrific way to take care of an enormous fraction of food waste. What they're supposed to be eating is a source of great amusement to me there's an enormous industry that uses the same kinds of messages that appeal to owners and after all, it's the owners who are buying it. So the flavors, the colors, the packaging, the health messaging, and all of that is aimed at the people who are actually buying the food whereas a lot of dogs and cats would be just as happy eating.
Andy Hamilton [00:29:37] But has there been a trend towards less healthy foods for pets?
Marion Nestle [00:29:44] Pet obesity is an enormous problem but that's because of treats more than anything else. People love interacting with dogs by giving them treats and that's how you train them and that's how you make them come to you. Those treats have calories and those calories add up. About the same percentage of dogs and cats are overweight as are humans. I don't know I just loved writing about it. I love going your pet food stores and reading the labels of the products and saying "made with vegetables," "non GMO," you know all of the same kind of "gluten free," the same kinds of messages that get people to buy food.
Andy Hamilton [00:30:33] One last question and you've touched upon it in your comments on pet food. Food waste. One of the things particularly in America, particularly in New York that I think for all of us is disturbing. To see the amount of food that is thrown away, the amount of food from restaurants from even NYU cafeterias and NYU dining halls. This is an issue that I think we all could place greater priority on. Do you think it's deliberate? Do you think...
Marion Nestle [00:31:13] It's built into the system! The United States produces twice the calories that the population needs on average. Four thousand a day per capita. And that means you, me, and a little tiny babies. We need probably on average about 2000. That means built into the system is a need to throw away 2000 calories per day per person in the United States. So I see it as a production issue. What we really need to do is to produce less food and use that food in a more efficient way. But the profits in the food system come from and the support for our agricultural system go to producing more not less.
Andy Hamilton [00:32:02] And you know well that in Europe one of the criticisms there is when farmers are paid not to produce food for different pricing structural reasons.
Marion Nestle [00:32:13] Actually that's not a bad idea. We used to do that and it worked much better.
Andy Hamilton [00:32:19] I think that's an ideal point in which to end this conversation. Marion Nestle let me thank you very much. This has been wonderful, fascinating, intriguing. Thank you very much.
Marion Nestle [00:32:29] My pleasure.
Announcer [00:32:34] Visit nyu.edu/conversations to subscribe to the podcast and learn more.