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Food politics: Worse than you thought 

The eye-level eye-candy found in the food section of bookstores entices us to buy more cookbooks than we can ever use. Down at ankle-level, with only their sober spines showing, are the other food books. My favorites are the social, political and economic histories, which show us food embedded in particular times and places and, sometimes, explaining how we ever got from there to here. Single food books have been a recent trend: the wonderful Cod by Mark Kurlansky, as well as Salt (Kurlansky again) and, even more recently, two books on gin (Craze: Gin and Debauchery in an Agef Reason by Jessica Warner and Gin: The Much Lamented Death of Madam Geneva by Patrick Dillon). The granddaddy of these is Sidney Mintz's magisterial Sweetness and Power, about sugar's role in the rise of capitalism, the working class and globalization (not the current one).

Fast Food Nation, Eric Schlosser's brilliant expose of the history and inner workings, from farm to stomach, of McFood, even reached bestseller status. A fascinating aspect of that book was the way in which Federal law and regulations can be arranged to stack the deck in favor of Big Food. And now we have Marion Nestle's Food Politics--a readable and beautifully detailed account of how this happens on a broad scale, involving the entire $800 billion per year food industry.

Nestle is a professor and chair of New York University's Department of Nutrition and Food Studies; she has also served in advisory capacities to various regulatory committees. She not only understands the scientific issues very well (and can write clearly about them), but also knows the ins and outs of regulatory battles.

Five particular cases anchor the book: the Food Pyramid and the general issue of governmental dietary advice; junk food in schools; the deregulation of dietary supplements, infant formula; and "techno-foods" (featuring the Olestra case). I can sum these case studies up as follows: It's even worse than you thought.

The economic underpinnings of what goes on in the politics of food are relatively simple. Economic growth in the food industry, as constructed in the 20th century, depends upon convincing people to eat more. And the higher profit margins lie with value-added (i.e., processed) foods and not mere raw ingredients. Water, salt, fat and sugar are the most cost-effective additives. So is minimum-wage labor. Currently, only 20 percent of the food dollar goes to the farm. That's the average; the corn in Corn Flakes is less than 10 percent of the retail price and for produce we're down to 5 percent.

The nutritional underpinnings of what goes on in the politics of food are also relatively simple. Despite appearances to the contrary in the media, there has been, since the 1950s, sound advice on what a healthy diet is. Eat your veggies (and fruits and grains). Eat less saturated fat (i.e., meat), salt and sugar. This represents a big shift from 100 years ago, when diseases of deficiency were more common than diseases of abundance. And when 40 percent (not 1 percent) of the population lived on farms. And when food grew nearby and was subject to seasonal variation.

So the best nutritional advice goes against the eat more necessities of the food industry. (Vegetable producers, for various reasons, are not the lobbying powerhouses that the eat and processed food industries are.)

What Big Food doesn't ever want to hear (or rather want the public to hear by way of official dietary guidelines) is the "less" message. And so, as Nestle documents, phrases like "less meat" are made to disappear in favor of phrases like "choose a diet that is low in saturated fat ... " and "choose beverages and foods to moderate your intake of sugars." Not only is "less" gone, but so are specific foods.

Abetting this is the odd division of labor in the federal government between the Department of Agriculture (USDA) and the Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS, which subsumes the FDA, CDC and the PHS). You would have thought that recommendations about diet and health and the regulation of food safety would belong to the FDA, whose mandate is to protect the public health. You would have thought wrong. The USDA, whose mandate is to promote agriculture (for which you can read industrial agriculture), has grabbed (and been legislatively given) much of the relevant territory.

And, of course, all the bad food (nutritionally, gastronomically and ecologically) that Big Food brings you is subsidized in various tricky ways by your tax dollars. Bad food is not as cheap as it seems. At this point Nestle tells the expected, but still fascinating, story of agricultural PACS, lobbyists, influence peddling and revolving door syndrome. Even more distressing is the corruption of professional associations, journals and academics. For example, the American Dietetic Association produces facts sheets on various food and nutritional issues.

These are actually written by the interested industries; thus, Monsanto produces the fact sheet on biotechnology, Procter & Gamble wrote the one on Olestra, Campbell Soup the one on sodium and Mars the one on chocolate.

Another sad example is the Tufts Nutrition Navigator Web site ( which is Tufts University's school of Nutrition guide to nutrition Web sites. It is sponsored by Kraft Foods (aka Philip Morris). Curiously, the highly ranked ones tend to be industry's Web sites.

And, just as in the general biomedical realm, journal research is funded by the interested corporations and author disclosure of financial ties to their sponsors is a novelty. (It is becoming well-known that drug studies funded by the manufacturer are more likely to report favorable results for the company's product than independently funded studies.)

Although Big Pharma doesn't play a role in Nestle's book, Little Pharma does. One of the worst pieces of legislation I can think of (I know, the USA Patriot Act deserves top billing) was the Dietary Supplement Health and Education Act of 1994 (DSHEA). Nestle has a very clear account of this complicated debacle. I won't summarize how we got there, but the end result is that dietary supplements are not only not regulated like the drugs that they often are (for safety and efficacy), but they are not even regulated as much as food is. It is essentially a free-for-all, where issues of safety can only be litigated by the FDA after the fact, where efficacy claims can be made without any evidence as long as certain buzz words are avoided, and where the amounts indicated on the label may or may not reflect what's in the capsule.

It is fascinating what you can and can't claim on a label. You can say (with no scientific evidence) "helps maintain cardiovascular function," which is code for the forbidden "protect against heart disease." Similarly, you can say "promotes healthy cholesterol level" but not "lowers cholesterol." That's on the label; on nearby posters, and out of the mouths of store clerks, who may have majored in English, anything goes. In some ways, the saddest case study in the book is the marketing of junk foods and soft-drinks to children, including the increasing corruption of schools systems by junk food money. Children are much bigger spenders than they used to be, and they are also future spenders whose eating habits can be set now. The future looks grim. Public schools, starved for money, rationalize their way down this particular road to hell.

One reason that the food industry fights dietary guidelines and nutritional education, and routinely seeks to confuse the public about nutritional matters, is that nutritional education and guidelines actually work. Just as food industry marketing works, and subsidies for junk food work, so would countervailing education and subsidies. There's even some research that supports this. The food industry is not being irrational in its opposition to governmental action on public health concerns. And Big Pharma is a beneficiary here. Heart disease, cancer and diabetes are, after all, chronic treatable diseases.

Nestle's book is not as sensational as Schlosser's, nor as sensitive to the class issues that are not far beneath the surface of these food issues; but it is a much-needed, clearly written and well-organized account of often obscured matters. Food matters.

On Thursday, May 22, at 10 p.m., Frontline World (PBS) will air "Bitter Grounds," a segment on the current coffee crisis in Central America. As I've written about here, there is an oversupply of low-quality coffee on the world market that has driven coffee prices to historically low levels. Coffee farmers are in deep trouble--coffee prices are below their production costs. Please check your local listing at: EndBlock


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