Voting with a fork: The politics of food

"What to Eat" author Marion Nestle aims to set the record straight on the politics of food in the U.S.

SAN FRANCISCO--From California, where it's grown, to a destination like Manhattan, prepackaged spinach can stew for 10 to 14 days before it hits grocery store aisles.

That bit of unsettling news isn't something shoppers would likely see advertised in stores. Rather, it took some sleuthing by a nutritionist who was researching an upcoming book to find out how "fresh" spinach in a bag really is.

"It took quite a long time to find anyone who would divulge that piece of information. And I could see why," said Marion Nestle, scientist, New York University professor and author of "Food Politics" and the new tome, "What to Eat: An Aisle-by-Aisle Guide to Savvy Food Choices and Good Eating," which is due to come out May 2. Nestle spoke here this week about food politics in the United States, as part of San Francisco's City Arts and Lectures series.

Without a doubt, people love to eat. What's less enjoyable for many health-conscious consumers is the confusion and anxiety brought on by deciding what--and how much--food to eat. From carbohydrates and trans-fats to antioxidants and mercury, most people are baffled trying to identify what a truly "healthy" lifestyle is. The details of diseases, ingredients and nutrients seem to change weekly, based on new diet fads or research studies. Food labeling alone is enough to make people's head spin. Eggs, for example, can be conventional, brown or white, locally grown, organic or "United Egg Producers Certified," not to mention the various brands under which they are sold.

So who benefits from this confusion about nutrition and health? Nestle argues in her book "What to Eat" that the food, restaurant, fast-food, diet, health-club, drug and health-care industries all benefit most. For the health-care industry, for example, it would cost more to provide preventive services for an entire population than to pay for treatment for a smaller population that becomes ill, according to her book, which cites economic studies.

All this boils down to food politics. Under a government Nestle described as "corporate friendly" and having a closed approach to food safety and related problems, researching details about the food supply in the United States can be tough.

Yet the food supply and its politics may be more important than ever as the nation grapples with an epidemic of childhood obesity and threats of food-borne illnesses like the avian flu. Potential threats to the food and water supply through bioterrorism is another significant worry.

Obesity is, by far, America's biggest problem in food politics, Nestle said. Curbing the amount of food people eat is an uphill battle because the food industry constantly pushes consumers to eat more, not less, she said.

"The deep dark secret of American agriculture (revealed only by agricultural economists behind closed doors)," Nestle writes, "is that there is far too much food available--3,900 calories per day for every man, woman and child in the country, whereas the average adult needs only a bit more than half that amount, and children much less."

As a result, the food industry--worth almost a trillion dollars annually--makes food more convenient (already washed, prepackaged spinach, for example), served in larger portions, easier to access and cheaper so that people will eat and buy more. In this regard, the food industry's goal of making profits can be diametrically opposed to a consumer's goal of being healthy, according to Nestle.

Visiting the San Francisco Bay Area to promote her new book and act as guest professor at the University of California, Berkeley, Nestle contends that if people want to protect the integrity of the food supply in the U.S. and abroad, they must get involved with the legislative process and "vote with their forks."

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