Book Review: Unsavory Truth by Marion Nestle

Gavin Wren
Nov 15, 2018 · 3 min read

Industrial ties to nutrition standards have created situations worthy of the best satire.

Froot Loops, a breakfast cereal comprising 44% of calories from added sugars was once labelled a ‘Smart Choice’ by leading nutritionists, because it met the contrived standards required. This is just one example from Unsavory Truth, a new book from Marion Nestle which walks through the tangled web of food and business bucks with authoritative aplomb. Unsavory Truth demonstrates that industry funded research is like pineapple on pizza — it might sound completely wrong, but that’s no reason to ban it.

Marion Nestle is Professor of Nutrition, Food Studies, and Public Health at New York University and has a long history of public health advocacy. Her writing hints towards the no-fucks-given resignation of someone who’s witnessed enough industry funding debacles to write the ultimate hatchet job, if libel laws permitted. Instead, Unsavory Truth unravels a nuanced understanding of how big food and nutrition can interact, to the benefit of everyone involved.

Moral outrage over conflicts of interest is incredibly tempting when Coca-Cola fund studies that conclude exercise, not calories, are the primary issue in energy balance. When corporate cash shifts the discussion away from food and onto exercise, Hershey-funded studies concluding that chocolate and almonds are good for health also seem laughably co-incidental.

But, what if these studies are true? Or does business truly skew the agenda?

Nestle explores these big questions with candid good humour. Big business has a lot of money and needs good research, while researchers are strapped for cash and want to research. These interactions seem tailormade, if the conflicts can be managed. Unsavory Truth elaborates where the snakes and ladders are found in this arena.

Psychology around funding bias and gifts makes for fascinating reading, the latter of which seems to affect everyone, regardless of how clever you are, Doc. The political nature of research funding also gets good airtime, along with the big food/tobacco/pharma comparisons and the ‘playbook’ employed by all, which casts a shadow over the whole topic.

It seems clear throughout Unsavory Truth that there is no line in the sand. In capitalist societies we need to acknowledge that private investment is a potentially powerful key for developing technology and solutions, to ignore this fact would be disingenuous. Nestle’s experience facilitates objective balance, highlighting impressive examples of industry funded studies which have furthered nutritional research, alongside examples of industry funding which resulted in unfavourable conclusions for the funder.

Whatever the situation, Unsavory Truth reminds us that it’s important to keep the “Conflict of Interest Bingo” card close at hand and one eye on the big industry playbook.

That’s why Unsavory Truth is vital reading for anyone with an interest in big food, because Nestle’s wisdom and experience leads us through this enormously contentious area with nuance, en pointe. Unsavory Truth may provide you with a wry smile and some retrospectively comical anecdotes to amuse your friends, but it provides more than war stories. It also presents forward-thinking inspiration for those keen to understand how research and big business can work together. Science and corporate cash might seem like uncomfortable bedfellows, but as noted in the book, research and business serve different purposes in the development of our lives, hence, it’s vital not to “throw the baby out with the bathwater”.

Unsavory Truth by Marion Nestle was released on 30th October 2018 by Basic Books.

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