Academic and author Marion Nestle believes that food can catalyze political movements

Nestle details the pernicious tactics of food and beverage corporations to prey on the vulnerable and encourages her readers to get involved in fixing a broken food system in Document's Fall/Winter 2018 issue.

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With her diminutive profile and cheerful disposition, she doesn’t exactly present as the kind of person you’d imagine striking fear into the hearts of the world’s most powerful food and beverage executives. Nevertheless, Marion Nestle, who chaired NYU’s venerable Department of Food and Nutrition Studies for 15 years and has written ten books on nutrition and food policy, has a confession to make: “I was spied on.”

As she details in her new book, Unsavory Truth, she was giving a talk two years ago to the Australian Nutrition Society in Sydney, which a representative of Coca-Cola asked to attend. She didn’t mind; after all, she’d just published her book Soda Politics, and it wasn’t as if her opinions about Coca-Cola’s marketing and lobbying practices were a secret. “I figured that somebody from the soda industry was at every talk I gave,” she says, “so I just sort of shrugged it off and was utterly astounded a year later to see [my name in] the emails that were hacked by the Russians and posted on DCLeaks.”

It turns out that the Coca-Cola rep who attended her talk had recommended monitoring Nestle’s future presentations, research, and social media posts. The emails, she says, were passed up the Coca-Cola chain of command and forwarded to a consultant on Hillary Clinton’s 2016 presidential campaign who had financial ties to the company, which led to their publication on DCLeaks. “I just never stop being surprised at the extent these companies will go to to protect their sales, no matter what they say publicly,” she says. “And they say a lot publicly.”

In Unsavory Truth, Nestle details the pernicious effects of industry funding on nutrition research and encourages her readers to get involved in fixing a broken food system.

Dan Gilmore: You begin your new book with a note about why you became a food scientist. You write, ‘I am…endlessly fascinated by the way food choices relate to so many of the most challenging problems in society—health is only the most obvious. What we eat is linked to matters of poverty, inequality, race and class, immigration, social and political conflict, environmental degradation, climate change, and much else. Food is a lens through which to examine all those concerns.’ Tell me more about food as a lens for these issues.

Marion Nestle: Well, pick one.

Dan: How about inequality.

Marion: We have a class system in diet in the United States. Rich, educated white people eat healthfully. They can afford it. They have access to it. And poor people of color tend to eat very badly. What is now called food insecurity, or hunger, is more common among poor people, but so is obesity—which seems counterintuitive. The first thing you do if you want to look at food and inequality is look at income. Poverty is the single strongest [risk] factor for diet-related chronic diseases, cancer, Type 2 diabetes, obesity—the whole works. If you want to be healthy, it’s good to be rich.

“What I’m trying to do is encourage young people to get involved. Join the food movement and change the food system.”

Dan: When you pick up the newspaper, do you see stories through that lens?

Marion: Absolutely.

Dan: Do you find yourself drawing connections back to food no matter what you’re reading about?

Marion: Absolutely. Any newspaper any day has something in it that’s directly related to the kind of thing I’m interested in. At different times, I’m specifically interested in different food issues, depending on what the current project is. Right now, I’m paying very close attention to stories about conflict of interest, and one got sent to me yesterday about how Coca-Cola and Mars are influencing food policy in Latin America.

Dan: I’m sure you saw the story in The New York Times recently about the wells in Mexico and the lack of access to fresh water. Coca-Cola can drill down very deep, and they have fresh water, and meanwhile, the local residents are drinking Coca-Cola.

Marion: Exactly. You’re thinking about water—‘What’s that got to do with public health?’ It has a great deal to do with public health. Mexico is one of the most obese populations in the world, and part of that has to do with Coca-Cola’s deliberate convincing of the Mexican population that Coca-Cola is safer to drink than water, because the water is polluted. The revenues from the soda tax in Mexico were supposed to go to the local governments, but they have not. That’s a big infrastructure issue. Nobody wants to pay for infrastructure, but if you’re a first-world country, you’re supposed to have good infrastructure.

Dan: In the book, you discuss how big tobacco designed the strategic playbook for influencing policy and public perception, and how ultimately big food has adopted that playbook. Big food has in recent years adopted another of big tobacco’s plays, which is looking overseas to increase sales.

Marion: That’s gone on for a long time. Sales of sugar-sweetened beverages, at least the full-sugar ones, are declining in the United States, and they’ve been going down since 2000. Soda companies are understandably concerned about that, and for as far back as I can trace, at least to 2003, Coca-Cola has listed obesity as the biggest threat to its business.

Dan: You mean in terms of perception rather than in terms of mortality?

Marion: Right. They don’t want their customers dying. [Laughs] In terms of public perception. The first thing you do if you want to lose weight is stop drinking sugary drinks, because they’re calories and nothing else. And it’s a really simple piece of advice that everybody understands, and the public health messages have been very successful. So sales are down. What do you do if sales are down? You change your marketing strategy so that you target children. They always targeted children, but you re-emphasize that while you swear you’re not doing it. You target minorities, because that’s a population that hasn’t gotten the public health messages, for a variety of reasons, and is still buying sodas. And you move [your business] overseas. I was particularly interested to see that when Myanmar opened up to Western products, Coca-Cola moved right in and put an enormous amount of money into marketing, which was interesting, because they had no history of drinking cold beverages there.

Dan: Like what Starbucks did in China, with coffee.

Marion: They had to teach everybody how to drink cold beverages. They put labels on bottles that explain to people what they were supposed to do with them. They hung a banner from the tallest building downtown that went from the top of the building to the bottom. The amount of money that the soda industry puts into marketing overseas is simply incomprehensible.

Dan: How much?

Marion: They said between 2015 and 2020, they were going to put [more than] $5 billion into China, India, Southeast Asia, and Latin America. One [figure] that really got to me was that between 2010 and 2020, they were going to put $17 billion into [manufacturing and] marketing sugar-sweetened beverages in Africa. These are countries and places where people are thin, not obese, and in some places have excellent longevity and health, and this is a deliberate strategy to do something that’s not going to improve the health of this population in any way whatsoever. The ways in which Coca-Cola has marketed have been particularly insidious, because they make it difficult for public health people to fight it. For example, they fund women to run little kiosks in which they sell these drinks. I remember giving a talk at the World Health Organization, and somebody got up and said, ‘But they’re employing women.’

Dan: You’re anti-women if you’re anti-Coca-Cola.

Marion: They’re employing people. So that’s an enormous dilemma. And that’s only part of the marketing. The other thing they’re doing overseas is working very hard to influence policy so that the countries don’t [adopt] soda taxes. They work with local business groups [as] front groups. And there’s one example—we can’t prove that it was Coca-Cola, but a very sophisticated kind of spyware was installed on the cell phones of a group of soda-tax advocates in Mexico. It’s made in Israel and sold only to governments, and how government-only software got on the phones of soda-tax advocates is something nobody has ever been able to figure out. They suspect government ties to Coca-Cola, but they can’t prove it.

Dan: Going back to big tobacco for a moment—do you believe there’s the remotest possibility that we will see big food taken on in court in a similar fashion? Along the lines of, ‘You knew the science, and not only did you ignore it, but you intentionally obfuscated it and used misleading claims to market your products, and the results have been catastrophic for public health.’

Marion: It’s already happening. There’s a lawsuit against one company that makes a sugar-sweetened cereal for misleading children and their parents into thinking that it’s healthy. The place where the lawsuits have been the most successful so far is GMOs. There are people in the courts all the time about these kinds of things, but it’s difficult with food. Cigarettes are easy. They’re one product.

Dan: And you don’t need them. You need food.

Marion: But you don’t need sugar-sweetened beverages. That’s why sugar-sweetened beverages are particularly vulnerable, because they’re sugars and water and nothing else. Everything else has nutrients in it, and it’s more complicated.

Dan: For me, most damningly, there’s ample evidence that these food companies have engineered their products to be addictive. I know you’ve thought quite a bit about this issue, and you’ve written blurbs for books that address it, including Michael Moss’s Salt Sugar Fat. Eight years ago, you wrote on your website, ‘I’m hearing more and more about food as a problem of addiction. I have a hard time seeing it that way.’ Is that still true today?

Marion: Yeah. We’re not talking about heroin or cigarettes or opioids. We’re talking about something that is eaten along with a million other things. And there certainly are people who believe that they are addicted to chocolate. There certainly are people who believe that they’re addicted to…usually diet sodas, interestingly enough, but also sugar-sweetened beverages. The addiction literature has looked at this very, very closely. There are very thoughtful articles and books that have been written about this. I tend to be conservative about these kinds of things. But the addiction literature says that if people feel like they’re addicted, that needs to be taken very seriously.

Dan: It’s the perception of addiction.

Marion: If they perceive themselves to be addicted, then you have to deal with them as if they are addicted and work with them in the same way that you would with somebody who is alcoholic or opioid-addicted. There’s evidence that sugar affects the same receptors in our brains as opioid receptors, but to a much, much smaller extent. But if they feel like they’re addicted, treat them like they’re addicted.

Dan: I was struck reading your book how often you give people the benefit of the doubt.

Marion: I just did. [Laughs]

Dan: In one case, you were talking about how in 2015, following a series of embarrassing disclosures, Coca-Cola promised to be more transparent about whose research it was funding. It subsequently listed on its website 42 such researchers. Later, it was revealed that the real number was in excess of 900. You played devil’s advocate, writing, ‘I do not believe that Coca-Cola officials were deliberately trying to hide this information; my guess is that they did not have readily accessible records of everyone they funded.’

Marion: I’ve met these people. The heads of Coca-Cola North America, the last one and the current one, have both visited me in my office. They seem like really decent people. They’ve got stockholders to deal with. That’s their main problem.

Dan: If you believe that there are good people of good intentions working for these companies, I wonder if you also think we will see a self-correction in product development and marketing.

Marion: Well, they’re already self-correcting. They’re desperate to find products that will make up the shortfall from the declining sales of classic Coca-Cola. So they have a couple of hundred products, most of them with less sugar. They’re doing the best that they can, but they’ve got stockholders to please.

Dan: Let’s talk about social media and nutrition. Out of curiosity, I searched ‘nutrition’ on Instagram. The first account that came up,, has more than 400,000 followers and makes such claims as, ‘Watermelon is a rich source of citrulline, which has been found to improve erection hardness in men with mild erectile dysfunction (impotence).’

Marion: Yes! [Laughs]

Dan: The second account that came up, which has more than 300,000 followers, declared that increasing omega-3 intake can help with ‘burnout’—whatever that means—and dark chocolate can help reduce high blood pressure. There’s not a lot of room for asterisks or qualifications in the proverbial 140 characters. Social media: A force for good? Force for misinformation?

“What do you do if sales are down? You change your marketing strategy so that you target children even as you say you’re not. You target minorities, because that’s a population that is still buying sodas. And you move your business overseas.”

Marion: All of the above. I mean, that’s what gets followers: simple, absolutely fantastic, utterly desirable connections between nutrients or foods and health that couldn’t possibly be true if you sat back and thought about them for two seconds.

Dan: One of them was trying to link cherry consumption to marathon recovery. [Laughs] They’re really wild.

Marion: Why not? If you eat anything after a marathon, you feel better. I think cherries are better than other choices. If you can find good cherries, go for it. The companies that produce these foods or sell these foods have put funding into research to bolster these claims, because it sells products. And if you look at that research carefully, it, like all industry-funded research, tends to come out in favor of the sponsor.

Dan: In fact, it’s explicitly structured that way. They tell researchers what they’re looking to establish.

Marion: I think I wrote about the letters I get from some trade associations that say, we’re looking for proposals for research that needs to demonstrate the benefits of yogurt or grapes or bananas or whatever. And it’s really easy to design studies to demonstrate that if that’s what you want to do.

Dan: I’m curious about your take on the new era of transparency and disclosure. You’ve mentioned DCLeaks. You talked in the book about how that hack also revealed that Coca-Cola was lobbying Congress and federal agencies to ensure that a soda tax was not part of the 2015 Dietary Guidelines for Americans. Do you think the threat of exposure will cause companies like Coca-Cola to be more transparent about their lobbying efforts and the studies and organizations they fund?

Marion: No, because they don’t have to be. What Coca-Cola is doing is extraordinary. It’s listing everybody it funds. But it doesn’t say what they’re paying for. I noticed, for example, that they list dues and annual membership fees and some other things for the International Life Sciences Institute, which is a group that pretends to be a science think tank but is actually a front group for the food industry. It’s paid for entirely by the food companies. It keeps a very low profile and stays behind the scenes, but it’s in there lobbying on every conceivable food industry issue you could think of. So Coca-Cola doesn’t have to be involved in lobbying directly.

Dan: On the flip side, do you think the threat of exposure will cause politicians, academics, and nutrition professionals to be more cautious about accepting money from companies like Coca-Cola?

Marion: Well, I certainly hope so. From the standpoint of academics, they’re required by professional journals to disclose who pays for their study and whether they have other financial connections with that entity. It’s not adhered to very well. I give many examples in the book of places where it’s omitted or put in with a statement that the funder had nothing to do with the design, conduct, interpretation, or publication of the study, which may or may not be true, because the influence of industry is believed to be largely unconscious.

Dan: People often ask you what they can do about big food and its influence on public health. You tell them to vote with their forks—but also to vote with their votes. Have you witnessed any recent grassroots successes?

Marion: Well, the biggest one is soda taxes. There have been some very successful local initiatives to pass soda taxes. Those were grassroots efforts, and to the extent that they succeeded, they were done really well.

Dan: You spoke before about being monitored, and it sounded very J. Edgar Hoover, like you were some sort of political dissident. Do you think of yourself as an activist?

Marion: Oh, yeah.

Dan: You do?

Marion: Yeah, I do. For professional journals, I write very carefully referenced editorials. They’re op-eds, so they express an opinion. My books are also expressing opinions, but they’re also very carefully referenced. What I’m trying to do is encourage young people to get involved. Join the food movement and change the food system—that’s really what I’m after.

Dan: You were at Berkeley in the ’60s. Do you think that influenced the way you approach this?

Marion: Of course it did! This is something that young people these days have never experienced. We were part of a movement that felt like it succeeded. It was the Civil Rights Movement, the Women’s Movement, the anti–Vietnam War movement. There was success after success after success. We thought we were changing the world and making it a much better place. When I talk about the 1960s to my classes, you can hear a pin drop. They can’t imagine what it could have been like to be involved in a movement in which it seemed like everybody in the world was involved. It was not just you, it was hundreds of thousands of people who wanted it to be better—and to be better for people, not corporations.

Dan: What is there to be hopeful about right now? What do you feel hopeful about?

Marion: Young people. They want to change the world. There’s plenty of work to do, and they’re the ones who are going to be doing it.

This article originally appeared in Document’s Fall/Winter 2018 issue.

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