Though I have referred to Marion Nestle as my nutrition heroine for years, I've just finally finished the book that started it all. I'd first encountered Food Politics in one of my friends' dorm rooms in first year (Hi, Doe!), but finally got my own copy while I was in Hong Kong. A few months and a couple of other books later, here I am, trying to gather my thoughts about it.
In this book, Nestle (not related to, nor pronounced Nestlé) presents a few "case studies" of how the food industry has influenced government policy surrounding how the public is educated on nutrition and health. She starts off with the development of dietary guidelines and the food pyramid, then goes into more detail on the industry's tactics when it comes to getting the government, scientists, and health professionals on their side. She then talks about how food is marketed to kids; not just through TV, but also through branded toys, clothes, and most importantly, schools. After that, there's a section on how the supplement industry lobbied to essentially be deregulated in the States (here in Canada, since 2004 we have had the Natural Health Products Regulations, which I regrettably don't know very much about) and set the precedent for using health claims to market food as well as supplements. Nestle then finishes off with going into these "techno-foods" (foods engineered to have more desirable components, like vitamins and minerals, and/or less undesirable components, like fat, sugar, and salt.)
At times I found the book laborious to read, not because it was poorly written, but because I find it so frustrating how these companies market products that supposedly promote health, when really they care more about the health of their bank accounts than the health of the public. Also, although the impact of the food industry's lobbying in Canada is very similar, it does make me wonder how these specific situations apply here at home. Either way, Food Politics still provides lots of insight into how industry, policy, and our knowledge of nutrition are intertwined. Even as a dietitian, I catch myself saying things like, "All foods can be a part of a healthful diet." Technically, they are, but statements like that weaken the idea that some foods and dietary patterns are better for you than others.
Nestle does a great job of wrapping up the book with her conclusion, which summarizes the overarching themes that have been presented and suggests some simple modifications in public policy that will help create an environment that's more conducive to a healthy lifestyle. Since I have the fancy-pants "Revised and Expanded Edition" that was published in 2007, there's also an "afterword" section that covers the changes that have occurred in the health and nutrition movement from the consumers' and industries' sides since the book's first publication in 2002.
Perhaps it's my Albertan upbringing, but sometimes I couldn't help but cringe when she says something along the lines of, "And through this piece of legislation, "x" industry shifted the responsibility for "y" onto the consumers." Do food and supplement companies only care about selling more product, no matter what it takes? Perhaps, but from experience, I also think a lot of these companies and product developers actually believe that their novelty foods, supplements, and diets are doing good for the population. I think food producers and consumers alike have fallen prey to the idea that every scientific discovery, however minute, should change the status of certain food or nutrients, instead of waiting for long-term investigation and meta-reviews of multiple study results. Somewhere along the line, we've begun to think of food as drugs, so instead of thinking about how they fit in our overall dietary pattern, we reach for whichever food or product is lowest in fat, or lowest in sugar, or highest in antioxidants (even if we don't necessarily know what antioxidants do).
Though it's easy to say that the obesity epidemic and food choice is all a matter of individual responsibility and will power, I think Food Politics brings to light that our environment (I mean surroundings, not forests and global warming) does have an impact. I think we can agree that we need to increase the "dietary literacy" of the population, but even if we manage to do so (without the food industry muddling with our education messages), how can you not fault the food industry at least partially when we can't make the best choices for ourselves because we're not being told everything?
Eric Schlosser, author of Fast Food Nation says, "If you eat, you should read this book." And it's true - it really opens your eyes to the food industry and how it's affected the way we eat, and makes you really think about all the factors that come into play when we choose what goes into our shopping cart. I would highly recommend this book, as well as What to Eat, which goes "aisle by aisle" and talks about the different nutrition controversies surrounding the food that's in the marketplace.
Now that I'm finished with Food Politics, I'm looking to read something lighter, and I think Molly Wizenberg's A Homemade Life is just the ticket. I'm also looking to beef up my sports nutrition knowledge - I've previewed this, this and this on Google Books on the advice of some co-workers, but does anyone else have any goodies? I want to cram all this in before Ezra comes to see me because now that he's home in Winnipeg, he's scrounged up some books that he wants me to study. O_O
Till then, EatingWell just sent me some of my missing back issues (they've been sending me every *second* magazine for my subscription, oddly enough) and there's a mini-feature on beets in the February 2009 issue. Man, I miss having my own kitchen.