Who Decides What You Eat? (Hint: It’s Not Only You)

Food & Drink

(Courtesy of Getty Royalty Free)

What did you have for dinner last night? Did you think about how nutritious it was? Where did you get that information?

That last question is at the heart of a new book by the esteemed nutritionist, author and professor Marion Nestle. “Unsavory Truth: How Food Companies Skew the Science of What We Eat” was published just last week to positive reviews including in the New York Times,  Science and Nature. I sat interviewed Marion at her New York University office, and she shared her views on how food marketing manipulates our choices, the deterioration of our society’s relationship with science, and the need for us all to have a healthy skepticism about nutrition studies.

Lorin Fries: Unsavory Truth just came onto the bookshelves. Why did you write it?

Marion Nestle: While I was finalizing Soda Politics in 2015, I started noticing a lot of studies coming out with titles that made me wonder who funded them. I began to collect industry-funded research, posting it in batches on my blog. Later that year, the New York Times had an article about Coca-Cola’s funding of the Global Energy Balance Network. It was an astonishing story. I was quoted in the article, and I must have gotten 30 calls from reporters the following week. They were shocked that Coca-Cola would fund research so obviously self-serving, that academics would take money for studies like that, and that universities would allow their faculty to do so. If everyone was so shocked about such a widespread practice, I figured I had another book to write.

Fries: What do you hope readers will take away from the book?

Nestle: I hope that food companies will stop funding research designed to advance their interests. I hope that academics will realize how hazardous it is to take money from food companies for their research: their studies won’t be believed, they won’t be able to get on prestigious committees, and it will ruin their reputations. And I hope that the general public will be more skeptical when they see research studies that get headlines, but that don’t make any sense at all.

Marion Nestle, Paulette Goddard Professor of Nutrition, Food Studies, and Public Health, emerita, at New York UniversityCourtesy of Bill Hayes

Fries: Much of what you write about comes down to power dynamics around food. Could you comment?

Nestle: It’s about who makes the choices. The power in the food system is about who decides what people eat. Every consumer thinks that he or she has total free choice, but you only have the options that are in front of you — and in many cases, the marketing is designed to make you opt for one thing or another. We have twice as much food available United States than the population needs. The industry has to sell those calories to make a profit and please stockholders, and to grow that profit every 90 days to make Wall Street happy. That’s really tough. So they have figured out all sorts of marketing tactics to do that — one of which is to fund research to get the answers they want.

If you search online for what influences what we eat, you’ll find lots of diagrams that show food choice in the middle and lots of spokes coming out: peer pressure, price, religion, culture … but never anything about marketing. It’s totally invisible. What I’ve tried to do in Unsavory Truth, and in all my books, is to introduce marketing into that equation.

Fries: The importance of science is at the core of your writing. How would you describe American society’s current relationship with scientific research and evidence?  

Nestle: I worry a lot about that. I think what happened with science is that it got too big and competitive, and the values somehow got lost. When I was in graduate school, there was an extraordinarily high ethical standard that we were all expected to meet. You would never think of cheating on an experiment, and it was beyond comprehension that you would falsify a data point. If you got bad results, you lived with that. But things changed, and we began to see stories about falsified research. Now, pressures are so intense that people are willing to cut corners to get more publications out. Unfortunately, people who take money from food companies are deeply offended at the suggestion that those funds might influence them. Yet there are lots of studies, including on social psychology and reciprocity, that demonstrate how this influence goes below the level of critical thinking.

More broadly, we’re in a situation now where truth doesn’t have the same meaning as it once did. There’s a powerful force in society saying that science is just one way of looking at things, and that other ways are equally as valid. That’s a deliberate diminishing of science. The most obvious example is the denial of climate change; the anti-vaccine movement is another.

Fries: If influence happens below the radar, how can we see it clearly enough to resist it?

Nestle: We can gain perspective by looking at the drug industry, drawing on fifty years of excellent research. That’s an industry in which you can show that if the drug company sponsors research, that study will come out in favor of the sponsor’s product. And if a drug industry representative visits or gives gifts to a physician, that physician is more likely to prescribe the brand-name drug. It’s much harder to show this influence in the food industry. It’s obligatory to say that not all industry-funded research is biased — but a lot of it is. If I can look at the title of a study and figure out who paid for it, there’s something wrong.

Fries: How can we disentangle nutrition research from industry’s influence?

Nestle: One of the big issues in research is the lack of disclosure. For drug industry funding we have the open payments database where you can see how much money is being spent to influence physicians. You can look them up by name. We should do that for the food industry.

I thought of one way that the food industry could fund research that is untainted by influence: if the funding were mandatory, such as through a tax proportionate to sales, those resources could be put in a common fund and distributed by a third party. But it’s very unlikely that would happen: it’s a tax. Many of the solutions are politically impossible.

There are many people who think this is a ridiculous issue and there are more important reasons for bias. I disagree. I think this is one you can do something about.

Fries: What is one thing that readers of this column can do?

Nestle: Read reports about nutrition studies critically. If it’s too good to be true, it probably is. One of my favorites is, “Everything you ever thought you knew about nutrition is wrong.” That is a red warning flag – it’s just not how science works. I’m told all the time that people are confused because nutrition information changes all the time. No, it doesn’t. As Michael Pollan summarized, Eat Food. Not too much. Mostly plants. We’ve been saying that in different ways for years.

Food is wonderful. It’s one of life’s greatest pleasures. So be skeptical … and then go enjoy your dinner.

This interview is part of a series on how technology and innovation are transforming food and ecological systems – and how to get it right for people and planet. The conversation has been edited for clarity and length. 

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