Nobel Conference focuses on emotion, culture and politics of food

ST. PETER, Minn. — “You don’t have to be a Nobel Prize winner to figure out what to eat for supper,” Prof. Marion Nestle said Tuesday in the kick-off lecture for this year’s Nobel Conference at Gustavus Adolphus College in St. Peter.

Maybe the nutrition professor from New York University is right. But we sure seem to have trouble getting the food thing figured out.

The span of the lectures for this year’s conference — which is focused on the question “What makes food good?” — reflects the mind-boggling complexity behind problems that don’t seem to go away even though humans have been tilling the soil to feed themselves for 10,000 years.

Some 925 million people around the world aren’t getting enough to eat, or at least they are not getting enough of the right foods, according to the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organization. [PDF] That’s almost one in every seven people on the planet.

Meanwhile 33.8 percent of Americans are obese, says the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. That includes 24.6 percent of Minnesotans.

This is more than a distribution problem, more than a case of haves and have-nots. Our dysfunctional food habits are rooted in emotion, genetics, aesthetics, culture — and politics too, according to Nestle.

A heavy burden on food  
On the what-to-have-for-supper question, Nestle described an expert checklist defining good food as healthy, safe to eat and affordable and accessible for everyone. The food also should be produced in ways that are clean for the environment, fair to the workers who handled them, humane to farm animals, and supportive of the farm families and the communities in which the food and animals were raised.

Prof. Marion Nestle
Prof. Marion Nestle

Whew! Fit that agenda into a typical family supper squeezed between helping the kids with homework and running them to swim practices and football games.

Food’s burden grows even heavier when Nestle throws politics into the mix. She’s the author of “Food Politics: How the Food Industry Influences Nutrition and Health” and several other books on the subject.

There are reasons why the American public is confused about what to eat.

Everyone should know by now that the secret to curbing the national epidemic of obesity and the diseases it brings is to move more and eat less in general — but eat more fruits and vegetables.

Eating less, bad for business
Nestle argued that an often-ignored reason for the confusion is that “eating less is very bad for business” — bad, that is, for the business of the nation’s food industries.

Obesity rose in this country in tandem with political and financial developments, she said. About 15 percent of Americans were obese in the early 1980s compared with today’s 33 percent.

The rise began, she said, after the nation’s farm programs shifted away from paying farmers not to grow excess foods. The result was a glut of food and fierce competition in the food industry where suddenly companies had “a big problem trying to figure out how to sell even more food.”

(She may be correct in saying that such a policy shift started in the early 1980s, but many Minnesotans will remember the whole herd dairy buyout program in the late ’80s when Washington responded to a surplus of dairy products by paying farmers to ship their cows to the slaughterhouse.)

Meanwhile, Nestle said, more pressure came from shifting priorities on Wall Street where investors no longer would settle for long-term growth. Instead, they demanded quarterly profits.

“The result was particularly difficult for food companies that already were trying to sell food in a surplus environment,” she said.

Society changed profoundly as a result of that conundrum confronting the food industry, Nestle said.

Obesity among U.S. adults in 2009

Source: Behavioral Risk Factor Surveillance System, CDC

For starters, chain restaurants made eating out cheaper, and food eaten outside the home generally has more calories.

Further, portions increased. One strategy for beating the competition was to offer customers more for their food buck. A jumbo portion didn’t translate into jumbo costs for the companies because the actual food in a particular package or restaurant meal is relatively cheap compared with the associated packaging, marketing, labor and transportation costs.

It’s not surprising that this marketing strategy was skewed toward high-fat and high-carbohydrate foods. Those are the foods made relatively cheap by the government programs.

“If you go to McDonald’s with $5 you can buy five burgers or one salad,” Nestle said. “Why? It has to do with our food support system.”

Nothing they haven’t heard before 
Nestle lives in New York. She touts the tomatoes she grows on the balcony of her home as her closest tie to locally grown food.

It’s easier to take on Big Food in that setting than it is in St. Peter where corn fields hug the city limits, food processing plants are just down the road, and the headquarters of some of the world’s largest processers are an hour’s drive away in Minneapolis.

I asked Nestle after her lecture whether the setting gave her any pause.

“I didn’t even think of it,” she said. “I hope I didn’t hurt their feelings, but they didn’t hear anything they haven’t heard before.”

If they do squawk, it won’t be anything she hasn’t heard before either.

Nestle has been attacked as “one of the country’s most hysterical anti-food-industry fanatics,” a “radical” and “obsessed with blaming corporations.” Those are the barbs hurled by just one of many critics:, which is a website created by the Center for Consumer Freedom, an organization funded by the restaurant and food industries.

“I am very thick skinned for this kind of thing,” Nestle said. “This is politics. I don’t take it personally at all.”

No food that kills people
In her lecture, Nestle acknowledged that food growers and companies are under enormous pressure — not only from nutrition advocates, but also from regulators, Wall Street and lawyers who want to sue.

But she cut them no slack on health claims and food-safety concerns.

Obesity trends among U.S. adults
Source: Behavioral Risk Factor Surveillance System, CDC

During the Q & A after her lecture, someone asked whether sophisticated food-safety monitoring systems might be too expensive for small-scale producers such as apple orchards.

“I’m quite sympathetic to small farmers, but I think they should be producing safe food,” she said. “They should not be producing food that kills people.”

Losing battles
She was equally blunt in her criticism of food processors’ claims that their products offer health benefits — even from cereals that are chocolate-flavored or sugar coated.

“I would love to see a clinical trial prove that,” she said.

Health conscious consumer advocates have lost most of their major legal battles to curb such health claims. Courts have tended to support the food processors on First Amendment grounds.

“When I went to grammar school and learned about the First Amendment, I thought it had something to do with political and religious speech,” Nestle said. “I never thought it had to do with protecting the rights of food companies to market junk foods to kids.”

Particularly insidious, she said, has been a drive to market foods processed especially for kids, often foods that are laden with fats, sugar and salt.

“They are supposed to eat chicken fingers. They are not supposed to eat chicken,” she said. “A staggering amount of money goes into marketing to children.”

Buy our own legislators
Other battles have been lost in a Congress that is heavily beholden to campaign cash from the food and agricultural industries.

Even after the recent scare over salmonella-tainted eggs, a bill intended to improve oversight of food safety is stalled before the U.S. Senate. 

And a recent U.S. Supreme Court decision lifts limits on corporate campaign spending close to elections.

“I suppose we as the people could get together and try to buy our own legislators,” she said. “But we are fighting a very difficult system. . . .We can’t elect honest officials that are going to work in the public interest because they can’t get elected in this system.”

That leaves the burden on consumers who care about safe and healthy food.

“It’s the democratic part of this that I find so powerful,” Nestle said. “Everybody eats. And with every choice that you make you are voting for the food system you want.”

The Nobel Conference continues through today, and thousands of students, teachers and others from around the world are taking it in, many in person and many others via live coverage on the Internet. More information is available here.

Sharon Schmickle writes about national and foreign affairs and science. She can be reached at sschmickle [at] minnpost [dot] com.

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Comments (1)

  1. Submitted by Paul Scott on 10/06/2010 - 11:19 am.

    Thanks for covering this. Couple of points:

    “Everyone should know by now that the secret to curbing the national epidemic of obesity and the diseases it brings is to move more and eat less in general — but eat more fruits and vegetables.”

    I am not sure that just because everyone knows this it is true. Calories in calories out is an easy math for the food industry — it is the “personal responsibility” dodge — but I think the answer to the rise in type two diabetes (obesity isn’t a disease, or even a health problem as much as a surrogate, so we can’t call it an epidemic) has to do with a food supply based on processed foods high in refined carbohydrates. Exercise is nice but it has little to do with losing weight, barring large scale unending commitments.

    The other idea that I question is whether the supposedly opposing set of problems you cite in the beginning –malnutrition and obesity — are actually not one and the same problem. The diabesity phenotype is very likely a product of functional malnutrition in a wealthy society based on processed foods. The body keeps searching for more calories because it can find so little of what it needs in prepared processed foods. I would argue that it probably also explains why we consume larger portions.

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