Food Marketing Politics: In Conversation with NYU’s Dr. Marion Nestle

Dr. Marion Nestle’s “Food Politics: How the Food Industry Influences Nutrition and Health,” first published in 2002, examines the power, influence and effects of food industry marketing on the culinary choices of everyday consumers. Nestle, who has a Ph.D. in molecular biology and Master of Public Health in public health nutrition — both from the University of California, Berkeley — is currently the Paulette Goddard Professor in the Department of Nutrition, Food Studies and Public Health at New York University.

Dr. Marion Nestle

She is also a professor of sociology at NYU and a visiting professor of nutritional sciences at Cornell University. Nestle has authored eight books (including “Food Politics”) and received numerous awards. In 2011, she was ranked the #2 most powerful foodie in America (behind First Lady Michelle Obama) by renowned author Michael Pollan.

We caught up with Dr. Nestle to discuss her book, the importance of exercise, the similarities between food marketing and other industries, and whether all that much has really changed in the thirteen years since “Food Politics” was first published.

What led you to decide to explore this subject in particular?

The idea for a book about the politics of food had its origins in a meeting I attended in the early 1990s on the behavioral causes of cancer — cigarette smoking and diet. I knew that cigarettes caused cancer, but the speakers at this meeting showed slide after slide (in those pre-PowerPoint days) of cigarette marketing to children and adults all over the world. I was aware of cigarette marketing, but had never paid much attention to it. Cigarette marketing to children was just as common and ubiquitous as food marketing to children. It was time to start paying the same kind of attention to Coca-Cola marketing. So I started paying attention and writing articles about the ways food companies behaved like cigarette companies in their marketing and lobbying practices. Those articles were the basis of “Food Politics.”
Dr. Marion Nestle’s “Food Politics: How the Food Industry Influences Nutrition and Health

In the book, you discuss how the national food narrative shifted over time to promote an ‘eat less’ mentality due to the rise in obesity. How do you see exercise changing the narrative?

Oh, how food companies wish that physical activity was the focus of public health efforts to counter obesity — and they do everything they can to shift the focus from diet to exercise. Alas, increasing physical activity is not enough to reverse obesity. This is because of the math: it takes about a mile of walking or running to work off 100 calories, the amount in two normal (not Double Stuf) Oreo cookies. — Tweet this

When you worked on the updated ten-year anniversary edition of your book (released in 2013), did you find that any of the issues you wrote about had improved or changed since your original research?

I wrote a long afterword that updates events through 2012 or so. Much of the book is historical and those events didn’t change. Neither did my interpretation of those events. The basic principles — how food companies operate to sell products and defend their ability to do so — remains the same and helps explain what’s happening right now in food politics.

What was the most surprising discovery you made while researching and writing the book?

I was floored by the comprehensiveness of food company efforts to market, defend and attack in order to protect sales of foods that contributed to poor health. That understanding led me to undertake my most recent book project, “Soda Politics: Taking on Big Soda (and Winning),” which came out in October from Oxford University Press. Companies selling sugar-sweetened beverages are the best examples of users of the cigarette industry playbook to market and protect their products. Sodas are candy in liquid form best consumed in small amounts. Health advocacy has gotten that message across, and sales of sugar-sweetened beverages are way down in the United States.

How would you advise the average person to maintain a nutritious diet and be conscious of their health?

Eating healthfully is not that difficult and the principles are simple: eat vegetables, avoid too much junk food, and balance calories. An enormous variety of diets can promote good health, but the best follow those principles.

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