"What to Eat" - Food & Nutrition Expert Dr. Marion Nestle Talks With The Diet Channel

Tuesday, October 24, 2006 - 1:50pm

After a long day at work you make a quick, five minute stop at the grocery store to pick up a $3 gallon of milk. You enter the store and head to the milk section, which is inconveniently located in the back of the store. Along the way you pass brightly colored produce, free samples simmering in a crock pot, and multiple aisles each stocked with in-store specials. You find your milk and make your way back through the maze, passing aisles filled with cookies, candy, chips, and soda. Wandering past the toiletries section, you remember you are out of toothpaste so you grab a tube. By the time you arrive at the cashier, your five minute stop for a $3 gallon of milk has just turned into a half hour long $27 buying spree. What just happened?

Buy What to Eat

In her new book What to Eat, Marion Nestle takes us on a guided tour of the supermarket, unmasking the food industry’s marketing tactics and illuminating the food choices—healthy and unhealthy—we make every day. Marion is a recipient of the James Beard Foundation Lifetime Achievement Award (it’s sort of the “Nobel Prize” for food) and teaches at New York University. No one has thought longer or harder about the modern American’s diet. Thanks to Marion for sharing her insight with us.

Why this book now?
Well, it’s a direct response to Food Politics, which came out in 2002. As I was going around the country giving talks about how food marketing influences food choices, people would come up afterwards and say, “great book, but you didn’t tell us what to eat.” When I heard that for the 10 th time, I thought I had best find out what that was about. I soon discovered that many people feel desperately confused about what to eat. In particular, they tell me they feel at a total loss about how to make choices in supermarkets. So I spent the next year or so taking a close look at the issues and trying to make sense of them.

Food and Politics is a recurring theme in your books. Basically, you cover the whole spectrum of food production. Which food industry sectors have been most receptive to your calls for reform?
All sectors look like they are reforming, on one level or another; whether they are doing anything significant is another matter. Food product makers, for example, are producing lots of packaged foods that are trans fat-free, made with whole grains, vitamin-enriched, or supplemented with omega-3s. But many of these are still junk foods, just made to look more nutritious. On a fundamental level, companies are driven by business imperatives. They must report growth to Wall Street every 90 days. This forces companies to make short-term decisions and to do everything possible to sell more food, not less. And they have to do this in an environment in which far too much food is available—3900 calories for every man, woman, and infant in the country, nearly twice as much as average need. This makes the food industry hugely competitive. Companies are happy to use nutrition to sell products, whether or not the products really are the best nutritional choices.

You have spent considerable time reviewing the meticulous design of supermarkets. What are the most clever tactics marketing savvy grocery stores use to get the consumer to change their buying habits?
Oh it doesn’t take all that much. Research shows that the more you see, the more you buy. So companies pay to place their products where you are bound to see them, especially at eye level, at the ends of aisles, and at the cash registers. I recently was in a supermarket in a low-income area in Los Angeles that had mountains of soft drinks in about ten places in the store. You could hardly get out of there without buying soft drinks. And these are priced so that the largest sizes are a bargain. Research says that the bigger the container, the more calories you eat from it. So these are all “buy more” strategies. If you eat more as a result, that’s your problem—or so they say.

What trade-offs do consumers make when choosing between large corporate produce suppliers and locally grown organic produce?
I am a big supporter of organics and of locally grown food so local and organic would always be my first choice. But east coast supermarkets find it cheaper and easier to get produce from suppliers in California than to buy from suppliers down the road. So you don’t often find local produce in large grocery stores.

It seems more and more is labeled “organic” these days. How “organic” is organic?
If the food is labeled “Certified Organic,” it means that the producer followed rules set down by the USDA that forbid pesticides (reason enough to choose organics), chemical fertilizers, genetically modified foods, hormones, and antibiotics. It also means that the producer is inspected to make sure the rules are followed. This is a clean system; Certified Organic means growers are held accountable for following the rules. With that said, the rules themselves have loopholes and are under relentless pressure from Congress, the USDA, and, of course, large food producers—Big Organics—to weaken the standards.

What types of produce, if any, are more likely to be prone to bacteria, viruses, and parasites?
They all are. I’m always amazed that we don’t become ill more often from eating fruits and vegetables. That we stay healthy is a tribute to the effectiveness of chlorinated water and of healthy immune systems for taking care of most harmful organisms. Imported vegetables have to be grown according to U.S. standards. Even so, it’s always best to wash fruits and vegetables before eating them.

To what degree should consumers be alarmed about genetically modified or irradiated food?
It depends on what alarms you. I think the real issue about genetically modified food has to do with corporate control over the food supply and who decides what gets grown and how. Irradiated foods are almost a non-issue because hardly any are in stores—just spices, really, and fruits imported from Hawaii. Irradiation hasn’t caught on because there is no demand for it and it really isn’t needed to keep foods safe.

Plenty of debate exists concerning milk. It is good for us or not?
I think it’s a matter of quantity, fat, and lactose. If you can handle the lactose, and aren’t allergic to the protein, dairy foods are fine—like everything else, in moderation. I personally prefer the low-fat varieties (except for cheese). I don’t see dairy foods as a poison or panacea. Sometimes a food is just a food.

In your book you discuss some confusion regarding the benefits of soy. What’s the basis of this confusion?
Soy foods are important in the diets of the Japanese, for example, whose health statistics are much better than ours. Of course, the Japanese differ from us in lots of other ways, but we love reductive explanations and soy looks like a good one. It’s a bean, with protein and mostly unsaturated fats, along with some special antioxidants called flavonoids that seem to have some health benefits. But some flavonoids are structured like estrogens and it’s not clear what their effects might be. Some studies show benefits, some show harm. I feel the same way about soy that I do about dairy. It’s a food. Eat it if you like it, just not too much.

There are so many economic, ethical, and nutritional issues surrounding meat. Which are most relevant to you?
I care a lot about all of the issues. I care how animals are raised and I much prefer my meat to be free of antibiotics and hormones. I wish more meat producers offered organics, but they say it’s too expensive to feed organic grains to animals so they produce “natural” meats instead. Because there are no standards for “natural,” it can mean whatever the producer says it means.

Why do you describe fish as the Wild West of the food industry?
Fish are complicated. There are lots of different kinds and lots of issues: where they were caught, where they are on the food chain, whether farmed or wild, how much fat they have, and so forth. And most fish sellers are clueless about what they are selling and can’t really answer questions that go beyond what’s on the labels. Occasionally, fish sellers cheat, selling farmed as wild, for example. And some do silly things like labeling a fish as “fresh, previously frozen.” Since 2005, fish sellers are supposed to say what country the fish come from, but mostly they don’t.

Like meat, there are a host of dilemmas regarding fish. Which resonate most deeply with you?
The main dilemmas are toxins versus omega-3 fats, farmed versus wild, and the whole question of overfishing and the disappearance of ocean fish. The one that most troubles me has to do with methylmercury; we actually could do something about this one. Much of the methymercury that accumulates in large predatory fish like shark and albacore tuna gets into the oceans from coal-burning power plants. We could control mercury emissions from these plants much better than is now required. I think it’s shameful that local waterways in almost every state are so polluted with toxins that the states issue advisories not to eat local fish very often—or at all if you are pregnant.

If you could mandate any changes to food labeling and nutrition information disclosure, what would they be?
I’d go along with the FDA’s recommendation—proposed years ago but still not in place—to list the total calories in a package. Right now, soft drinks say 100 calories for 8 ounces, but a 20 ounce bottle really has 250 calories because is has 2.5 servings. That’s a big difference in perception.

What are the three most important things we as a society should do to head off the childhood obesity epidemic?
I say: get junk foods out of the house (especially soft drinks and juice drinks), get junk foods out of the schools, and forbid advertising junk foods to kids on TV and every other media. I take an extreme position on this, but somebody has to.

What are the best/worst trends you see in the average American diet?
The increase in calorie intake is the biggest problem. Americans are eating at least 200 calories a day more than we did in 1980. No wonder we are gaining weight. On the other hand, I like it a lot that so many people are choosing organics. This may not help the weight problem, but it certainly will reduce pesticides in soil and water, and make for a healthier planet.

Are there any foods or food products you simply refuse to eat due to their negative health impact?
I don’t eat brains.

Let’s play a little word association. I’ll give you a word and you tell us what you think about it.

  • Olestra: An artificial fat that you can’t digest and works like mineral oil in your intestine? Yuck.
  • Caffeine: I’m one of those people who metabolizes caffeine quickly so it’s a non-issue for me. It revs up kids; they don’t need it.
  • Aspartame: I don’t like artificial anything when it comes to food. I much prefer sugar.
  • Hydrogenated oil: Ditto. It’s artificial. It was on my don’t-buy list long before I knew about trans fats. I don’t care for the way it tastes.
  • Sugar: I love it, particularly the brown crystalline kind—but in moderation, of course.

Finally, best part of being one of the world’s leading nutrition experts:
I get to answer questions like these in situations where people might actually be interested in my opinions. Thanks for the opportunity.