Unsavory Traits: An Interview with Professor Marion Nestle

On November 3rd, 2018, International House at the University of Chicago hosted Professor Marion Nestle’s lecture entitled Unsavory Traits. Professor Nestle is the Paulette Goddard Professor of Nutrition, Food Studies, and Public Health at New York University. In her talk, Professor Nestle explored the large corporations’ practice of funding skewed research to make profit at the expense of the health of the American public.

Prior to the lecture at International House, Global Voices-Metcalf Fellow Sophie Desch spoke with Professor Nestle about her recently published book, Unsavory Truth: How Food Companies Skew the Science of What We Eat.


Global Voices: You have a long list of accomplishments and accolades from your work in nutritional science, including the John Dewey Award for Distinguished Public Service from Bard College, and a Public Health Hero Award from the University of California School of Public Health at Berkeley, what initially drew you to the field of food and more specifically, food politics?


Dr. Nestle: I’ve always been interested in politics and it was obvious to me right from the beginning--and the beginning was when I was given a nutrition course to teach--that you couldn’t talk about nutrients and what people ate without understanding the social, economic and political environment in which they were making food choices.  So, politics was right in there from the beginning of my teaching career. I think what really did was going to a meeting of the National Cancer Institute in the mid-1990’s. It was a meeting on behavioral causes of cancer. The main one was cigarette smoking, and I knew smoking was bad and I knew cigarette companies marketed to children, but I had never paid any attention to it.  This meeting featured speakers who should pictures of cigarette marketing all of the world. Particularly memorable was a session on cigarette marketing to children. I came away from that thinking “I knew that, but I’d never seen it before--we should be doing this with Coca-Cola”.


Global Voices:  Interesting, that feeds well into my next question: What would you say are the most pressing concerns facing the American public in terms of nutrition today?  


Dr. Nestle: Oh, eating too much.  Without a question. Obesity is an enormous problem with dire health consequences for lots of people, not everyone, but a lot of people.  The one consequence of the food environment we have and the food marketing system that we have is making food available at very low costs everywhere and socially acceptable to eat 24/7 in very large amounts.  


Global Voices:  I read an article of yours in The Atlantic about regulations like “soda taxes”, so I wanted to ask: what would you say to those who view regulations like “soda taxes” as government overreach?  Does the benefit to public health outweigh the so-called restriction of the free market?


Dr. Nestle: Well, I don’t believe the market is free.  The market is the way it is because of government policies that have enabled the food companies that produce the kind of foods that are available to sell what they do at very low costs.  To give just one example, food companies, like all businesses, are permitted to deduct marketing expenses as business expenses from their taxes. That means that taxpayers are supporting a food system in which food companies can market to children and they’re paying for their marketing.  So that means the government is deeply involved in food choice already. This is tweaking those choices to make them healthier.


Global Voices:  Speaking of tweaking choices about food, I was wondering if I could ask you about your new book Unsavory Truth: How Food Companies Skew the Science of What We Eat, in which you discuss how large companies manipulate food science research.  What initially alerted you to this trend, and in what ways does this influence affect the average consumer?


Dr. Nestle: Well I wrote my first article about food industry influence on food nutrition research in 2001, so this something I’ve been writing about for a long time.  I talked about it in my book Food Politics, and with respect to the soda industry, I talked about Coca Cola’s funding of research in my book Soda Politics which came out in 2015.  This book grew out of that. The trigger for it was an article in the New York Times about Coca Cola’s funding of a group called “The Global Energy Balance Network”, which was producing research that claimed physical activity was more important than what you eat in maintaining a healthy weight.  Physical activity is very important, but if you want to maintain a healthy weight, it's great to be active but you need to eat less if you’re overeating. There’s plenty of research that makes the role of diet in weight very important. They didn’t mention that they were funded by Coca-Cola and there was a big scandal about it.  I was quoted in the New York Times article and I got a lot of calls from reporters afterwards--the reporters were shocked. They couldn’t believe that Coca-Cola would fund this kind of research that was so self-serving, they couldn’t believe that research investigators would accept money from Coca-Cola for doing this kind of research, and they couldn’t believe that universities would allow researchers to take money from industry to do this. I thought, “oh my goodness, if all these reporters have no idea how this system works, I have another book to write”. So I started working on the book right then.


Global Voices:  In that vein, are there any particularly surprising ways this happens or any common “health facts” that come from this practice?


Dr. Nestle: There’s no question that it confuses the research.  The basic finding about the industry funding of research is that that research tends to come out with results that favor the sponsors interests.  That’s a finding that has been shown for the tobacco industry, the chemical industry, the pharmaceutical drug industry, and to a much lesser extent, the food industry.  It just hasn’t been that much research on it, but the research that does exist makes it pretty clear that it's no different than anything else. That’s the basic observation.  So that leaves the questions, “how does that happen and what does it mean?”. The research indicates that the way that happens is unconsciously people who are doing research aren’t aware that funding influences them in the way it does.  Most of the places the bias is most prominent is not the way the science is conducted but in the way the research question is framed. So that scientists probably wouldn’t be doing this kind of research if it weren’t paid for by industry.  It all occurs below conscious thought and people aren’t aware of it. Researchers that take money from industry are outraged at the suggestion that it might influence the way they do their work, but there is a lot of evidence that it does. They just don’t see it.  


Global Voices:  While manipulating scientific research is always a morally dubious area, are there any real world consequences to these large corporations skewing the research?


Dr. Nestle: People are confused about nutrition.  Healthy diets are really easy to explain; the journalist Michael Pollan could do it in 7 words: “Eat food, not too much, mostly plants”.  Really, it’s not any more complicated than that. The people are very confused about what they’re eating. They think the research changes all the time, I don’t think it does--but that’s how it appears.  It influences dietary guidelines, so dietary guidelines are less clear and directive than they would be if industry funded research wasn’t used a basis for it, and it induces a lot of distrust.


Global Voices: On a more positive note, what can be done, both by the government and individual consumers, to combat this practice and what should the discerning consumer look for when trying to figure out the legitimacy of food related “science”?


Dr. Nestle: I think there’s a lot of hope.  For one thing, a lot more people are writing about this now.  I thought my book would come out and no one would be the slightest bit interested in it, but there have been so many articles in the newspaper in the last few months about conflicts of interest in research and industries paying scientists who just by coincidence support the donors products in way that are sometimes quite surprising.  I think the time is ripe, and I think people should be skeptical of nutrition research results, especially on one food or one product, that come out and appear to be miraculous. I’d like to see people be a little bit more skeptical and I’d like to see reporters pay more attention to who pays for studies when the results are so evidently in favor of one product or another.  I mean it’s really fun research, it’s fun to read about these miracle foods. But that’s not the way diets work. I hate to take the fun out of it, because it is fun. But people need to be more skeptical and to understand that eating relatively unprocessed foods in reasonable amounts is something terrific that they can do for their health.


Global Voices: Do you have any particularly egregious examples of these “fun little health facts?”


Dr. Nestle: Well my book is full of them.  The obvious one is Coca-Cola, and I have a whole chapter on coca-cola.  They’ve funded research clearly aimed at demonstrating that sugar-sweetened beverages do not have any adverse effects on health, and any evidence that suggests that they do adversely affect health is based on studies where the methods were so terrible that it’s not worth paying attention to.  There’s a lot of coca-cola funded research that says that. That’s an obvious one. But I talk a lot about what the meat and dairy industry do, what the makers of “healthy” foods do to try and demonstrate their foods are superfoods. And that I think is probably not such a great idea either because what you want to eat is a variety of fruits and vegetables--really they all have benefits, and there’s no such thing as a superfood, I’m sorry to say, but there really isn’t.  It’s not eating one food that makes a difference in your diet, it’s everything you eat. It’s a complicated concept, but unfortunately that’s how it works. So I have many, many, many examples, some of them are quite funny, I think.


This interview has been edited for clarity.

This program was co-sponsored by the Global Voices Performing Arts and Lecture Series and the Chicago Humanities Festival.