- The Washington Times - Sunday, March 24, 2002

By Marion Nestle
University of California Press, $29.95, 457 pages, illus.

Marion Nestle, New York University professor of nutrition and food studies, is furious at the American food industry for making American adults and children fat and sick.
The author (who, among other accomplishments, was managing editor of the l988 Surgeon General's Report on Nutrition and Health) is appalled that food corporations are focused on their economic bottom line and care more about profits and making their shareholders happy than they do about keeping us consumers healthy.
She is apoplectic about the facts that: a) food companies advertise and promote their foods, particularly good tasting foods which do not meet all the criteria for nutritional correctness; and b) that they even turn to modern day food technology (the author strenuously objects to fat substitutes like Olestra) to allow us to consume desserts and snacks, which she considers to be junk, at reduced caloric levels.
Indeed, if we were to take Marion Nestle's arguments at their face value, we would be advocating that food companies be run not by business people, but by academic physicians and scientists who were committed to creating their own self-designed nutrition utopia whether consumers wanted those foods or not, and regardless of whether their corporations succeeded economically.
Returning to basics, we must at least agree with one of the author's basic premises: Americans, both adults and children, are more overweight than ever and being overweight carries with it some very serious indeed life threatening adverse health effects. It has been said that we Americans now suffer from malnutrition of affluence. We have more economic resources to purchase food and we eat more.
But of course, that is only half of the dietary equation of nutrition balance. For a variety of social and economic reasons we also utilize fewer calories through exercise and the result is excess weight. With these extra pounds we face increased risk of myriad ailments including diabetes, heart disease, even breast cancer (obesity in middle aged women is an established risk factor for breast cancer). But who is to blame for the fattening of America? The author points the finger of blame directly at the "food industry," which she regards as some monolithic, profit-hungry, health-be-damned economic force over which we, as individuals, have no control. But clearly that is an over simplification to the point of absurdity.
We are hardly helpless victims here, captives of the psychological power the "food industry" holds over us through advertising, lobbying and promotion. Indeed the "food industry" is anything but monolithic, with a dizzying array of competitive products out there for us to buy. We make choices and sometimes those choices in the long run are unhealthy. If we are eating more calories daily than we need to maintain an ideal weight and if we do not make time in our schedule for regular exercise we are to blame, not the corporation who may spend millions advertising Cheese Doodles.
Indeed a stronger case could be made that current economic pressures and the need for multiple breadwinners in the family as being more responsible for our failure to eat more prudently and make time for swimming, jogging or other calorie burning activity. With fewer hours available for meal preparation and leisure, family time, processed foods, often more calorically-dense than a home cooked meal, are appealing. How is this the fault of the food industry, which is, after all, giving the consumer what he/she wants?
Yes, indeed, the author is correct in arguing that our health would improve if we replaced some of the empty calories in our diet with more fruits and vegetables. And yes, sugar-and-fat laden snacks in vending machines in elementary schools, where access is unsupervised, could well jeopardize a pattern of balanced nutrition for young children.
But making so called "junk food" (which might better be characterized as "fun food") available for teenagers and adults is simply a matter of choice and when used in moderation as part of a balanced diet, such "junk food" as soda, candy, popcorn and snacks pose no health problem whatever. (Perhaps the most single infuriating references in the book are those equating the advertising and promotion of food with those of cigarettes, as if one could ever legitimately compare anything about a spectrum of food stuffs, which are essential for long life and good health, with a physiologically addictive, inherently life threatening product).
Marion Nestle calls upon the "government" to take a more "serious approach to obesity prevention." If the end results of her quest were simply to have the government provide basic information on healthful diets and tips on avoiding those extra health threatening pounds, perhaps we would all benefit. But the broader thrust of "Food Politics" is more disquieting than mere government sponsored education.
Beware the day that the author and her colleagues succeed in restricting advertising for their long list of forbidden foods or perhaps, as some nutrition activists have already proposed, slapping "sin taxes" on foods that do not fit perfectly in the national nutritionists permissible menu slots. Our prospects for long life, good heath and the pursuit of happiness are far brighter in the hands of competitive, profit driven food corporations than they are in those of national, nutrition-nanny know-it-alls.

Elizabeth M. Whelan is president of the American Council on Science and Health.

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