Marion Nestle, PhD, is the Paulette Goddard Professor of Nutrition, Food Studies, and Public Health, Emerita, at New York University. She earned a PhD in molecular biology and an MPH in public health nutrition from the University of California, Berkeley. She is the author, co-author, or co-editor of fifteen books on food safety, food politics, and nutrition. Her blog, Food Politics, investigates and debunks nutrition claims, exposes industry-funded research, and analyzes recent news in food and nutrition. Her Twitter account, @marionnestle, with more than 140,000 followers, has been regarded as one of the top 10 accounts in health and science by Time magazine, Science magazine, and The Guardian.
Note: Dr. Nestle has had several interactions with the NYC Food Policy Center in the past. In November 2015 she sat for an interview about her book “Soda Politics: Taking on Big Soda (and winning)” prior to completing a Food Policy for Breakfast interview on the same topic in December 2015. In 2019, she won the Center’s inaugural Food Policy Changemaker award. In October 2022, she sat for another Food Policy For Breakfast interview with the Center’s founder and former executive director, Charles Platkin, to talk about her memoir “Slow Cooked: An Unexpected Life in Food Politics.” Now we are talking to her to gain her valuable insights into the post-pandemic era of food politics and nutrition.
Food Policy Center: In the past few years, the food sector has seen several changes. We’ve had rising food insecurity, global food shortages, permanent restaurant closures, and job losses, all as a result of the pandemic. However, we have also witnessed some positive changes recently, including more states offering permanent universal school meals, as well as increases in minimum wage and worker protections for food delivery workers.
Let’s focus on the positives first. When you think about what has happened over the past several years and where our food systems are now, what makes you the most hopeful? What recent food policies are you most excited about?
Marion Nestle: If anything good came out of the pandemic it is surely the increase in public awareness of flaws in our current food system. Two examples: the destruction of vast amounts of food with no distribution channels while people were lined up in cars for miles to get handouts from food banks, and the President’s issuing an executive order—written by Tyson’s—to keep meat-packing plants open while hundreds of workers were unable to avoid getting sick, transmitting disease to their communities, and dying.
As for hope: I’m just back from Mexico, where food advocates, academics, and government officials are working together to try to prevent obesity and its consequences through measures such as soda taxes, restrictions on junk-food advertising, and warning labels on foods excessively high in sugar, saturated fat, salt, and calories. Walking into a Mexican supermarket is an astonishing experience; it looks like half the products have warning labels.
FPC: What issues still need more attention in order to create a food system that works for everyone? How would you address those issues? How do social and political issues influence food systems?
MN: I’m an upstream thinker. I don’t think individuals can counter food industry marketing imperatives on their own. I have a pie-in-the-sky wish list:
- Reform campaign expenditure laws so we can elect officials who care about public health.
- Require food companies to make social responsibility an essential part of their corporate mission (not just profit).
- Transform our system of agriculture to support production of food for people (rather than the present feed for animals and fuel for automobiles).
- Provide universal health care, school meals, and basic income.
- Develop a national education campaign for diets that reduce hunger, obesity and chronic disease as well as greenhouse gas emissions (less meat, more plants).
Doing these things would solve a lot of dietary as well as other problems in society.
As I see it, the biggest problem we have is a dysfunctional Congress promoting corporate rather than public health or welfare goals. That’s politics. I can’t think of anything in the food system that is not influenced by politics. Take school food, for example. Remember when Michelle Obama tried to improve it? I’m guessing that she thought it was a bipartisan issue everyone could support—surely everyone wants kids to grow up healthy. The politics came up right away. The pizza industry insisted that ketchup be counted as a vegetable. Or, take dietary guidelines: Congress, at the behest of the meat industry, told the USDA the guidelines were not to consider sustainability in any way, shape, or form.
FPC: You have published several books on food politics and nutrition over the past 20-plus years. Food and diet trends, health priorities, food prices, and food science are all constantly changing. What do you consider to be a universal truth about food politics, regardless of time? What would you say is a universal truth about nutrition?
MN: I don’t see them as constantly changing. The principles of healthy diets are so simple that the journalist Michael Pollan can summarize them in seven words: “Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants.” Really, that’s all there is to it once you define “food” as anything other than ultra-processed.
As for food politics, the universal truth is that food companies are not social service or public health agencies; they are businesses with stockholders to please and are obligated to make profits their first and only priority.
FPC: In 2006 you published the book “What to Eat,” which provided guidance on how to decide what foods to purchase and eat based on various factors including competing health claims, nutrition, taste, freshness, and cost. A revised version of that book is now scheduled to come out in 2025. Can you provide a sneak peek into how you have modified your advice on making good food choices for the second iteration of the book?
MN: I greatly underestimated how much the marketing of supermarket foods has changed in the last 15 to 20 years; the new edition turned out to require a major rewrite. It will be an essentially new book. Some of the biggest changes are in beverages (flavored waters!) and plant-based options. The concept of ultra-processed foods is new since 2009, and I will have a lot to say about it. I also will be including a new chapter on CBD edibles. But even with all that, the basic advice is much the same: Eat food, not too much, mostly plants.
FPC: A lot of your research focuses on how the food industry shapes our food choices and health. What are the pros and cons of industry influences on nutrition and health? What influences would you remove from the equation, if possible, and how?
MN: I can’t think of any pros. To repeat: the overriding purpose of a food company is to make money for stockholders and pay executives enormous salaries. Every other consideration is decidedly secondary. To achieve this goal, food companies must sell as much product as they can at as high a price as they can. Whatever that takes, they do, regardless of effects on health or the environment. They also externalize the costs of those effects. One example: many workers in the food system depend on federal food assistance programs to survive, meaning that taxpayers are subsidizing Walmart and other such companies.
FPC: The Farm Bill is the largest piece of federal legislation influencing food, farming, and nutrition. While the 2023 Farm Bill is not likely to pass until December, what do you predict will receive greater attention in this iteration than in years past? Thinking ahead to the 2028 Farm Bill, what do you believe should be the top priorities for US policymakers and food advocates over the next five years?
MN: The elephant in the Farm Bill room is SNAP (food stamps). The program takes up 80 percent of the spending and is a constant target of anti-welfare, budget-cutting legislators. The remaining 20 percent belongs to industrial agriculture, much of it in the Republican Midwest. Consider corn production: 45 percent is for animal feed and another 45 percent goes for ethanol to fuel automobiles, leaving 10 percent or less for food for people. That’s just crazy, and it’s just plain wrong. We need an agricultural system focused on food, not feed or fuel, and one that supports real farmers and their workers, and promotes public health and environmental sustainability. A dream? For sure, but one worth working toward.
Grew up in: New York City and Los Angeles
City or town you call home: Manhattan
Job title: The Paulette Goddard Professor of Nutrition, Food Studies, and Public Health, Emerita, New York University
Background and education: University of California Berkeley: BA (1959), PhD (1968), MPH (1986)
One word you would use to describe our food system: Dysfunctional
Food policy heroes: Joan Gussow, Michael Jacobson, Michael Pollan, Eric Schlosser, Alice Waters, and the Latin American food advocates, especially those in Brazil and Mexico
Your breakfast this morning: Cereal and blueberries
Favorite food: Ice cream, preferably a great vanilla
Favorite last meal on Earth: See above.
Favorite food hangout: Home
Food policy social media must follow: I so hope your readers will take a look at foodpolitics.com
Photo credit: Bill Hayes