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5.0 out of 5 stars The food industry's assault on your health, December 25, 2002
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This review is from: Food Politics: How the Food Industry Influences Nutrition and Health (California Studies in Food and Culture) (Hardcover)
Nutrition expert Marion Nestle's "Food Politics" explains how the formula for a healthy diet hasn't changed. She advises that one should eat more plant-based foods (fruits, vegetables and whole grains) and less meat, dairy and sweets. But this message collides with the interests of the food-industrial complex, which makes the bulk of its profits by selling relatively expensive processed foods. The book examines how corporations have successfully fought the health message by using a number of overt and covert tactics to further their objectives at the public's expense.
In fact, this business success story has resulted in a generation of Americans who are significantly overweight compared with their predecessors. Nestle shows that public relations and government lobbying result in obfuscation and mixed messages about the relative values of certain foods; this generally confuses Americans and makes it difficult to get the "eat less" message. Interestingly, she reveals that the amount of sweets and snack foods consumed are in almost exact proportion to the advertising dollars spent promoting these foods, suggesting that limits on advertising junk food to children might be a reasonable first step in addressing this problem.
But Nestle is particularly critical of the criminally poor quality of the nation's public school lunch program and the "pouring rights" contracts struck with soft drink companies by cash-starved school districts. Our country's apparent unwilingness to provide nutritious meals to our schoolchildren is shameful, and Nestle should be congratulated for bringing the situation to light.
Other noteworthy sections of the book address the deregulation of dietary supplements and the invention of "techno-foods", ie foods that have been fortified with vitamins, minerals or herbal ingredients. The overall picture is one of regulators on the defensive and huckster capitalism run rampant. While it was disturbing but not too surprising to learn about relatively obscure supplement makers making absurd claims for products that have little scientifically proven value, it was somewhat amusing to see a reprint of a short-lived advertisement for Heinz ketchup that promoted its supposed cancer-fighting properties. It appears there are no limits to what kinds of food products might be similarly reinvented by marketers in their quest for higher profits.
In the closing chapter, Nestle proposes a number of useful solutions. Her ideas are reasonable and display a maturity gained through many years spent in government and academia. In an environment where food choices and information surrounding food products are increasingly difficult to understand, let's hope that this book inspires us all to demand greater accountability from the food companies that feed us. Highly recommended!
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Showing 1-6 of 6 posts in this discussion
Initial post: Nov 1, 2011 7:02:51 AM PDT
Last edited by the author on Nov 1, 2011 7:07:48 AM PDT
Are you serious? Processed foods are more expensive than unprocessed foods? Sir, where in the world do you shop? I'd like to do my grocery shopping there too!

In my experience the canned fruits, vegetables, tuna, frozen pizzas, etc. - processed food in general - are mostly cheaper than their fresh, unprocessed counterparts, especially if the latter (or their ingredients, in the pizza's case) are organically grown. (Maybe this is because they're sourced, processed, transported, and marketed in bulk, as well as modified and packaged so as to prevent/delay spoiling, all of which logically reduces their per-unit cost to the consumer.) Please bear with me here - this is not an ad for the food industry, as you'll see.

I think this is an important, but overlooked consideration: that processed food is arguably often cheaper, and, if not cheaper, is practically always more convenient than unprocessed - and shoppers obviously like those attributes. TV dinners? Just pop them in the microwave and voila! They're as convenient and cheap as they are lacking in nutritional value. Or how about a cheeseburger. The individual ingredients may cost less if you buy them yourself, but the time, money, and energy it takes to buy them and make a cheeseburger yourself, then clean your utensils/pans/plates, is far more than what it takes to order one at a fast-food restaurant (unless of course you make cheeseburgers at home all the time, so you have a stock of the ingredients and you're highly skilled/efficient at making them).

Of course, I know fresh is better than processed, and I try to eat accordingly. Make no mistake: I'm not advocating processed food here. The point I am trying to make is that the fundamental economic issue of lower cost is why we have a food-processing industry in the first place. Otherwise, consumers wouldn't patronize it. If you went to a burger joint, or any restaurant for that matter, and it took them 2 hrs to prepare your meal, and it cost $20, whereas if you had made the same meal at home in 1 hr and for $10 (or at some other lower cost structure), you'd be insane to pay for that restaurant's services ever again (unless you loved the waitress, the ambiance, or had some other strong motive(s) to value the experience differently), and the restaurant would go out of business (if it didn't drastically improve its service in time).

I'm glad the ''nation's public school lunch program'' is criticized. But the bigger problem lies not in the lunch program itself, but in the fact that the government, for all practical purposes, has a monopoly on primary-secondary education. The wholly unsatisfactory lunch program is a mere side effect of monopoly; monopolies can give unsatisfactory services/products precisely because consumers have no other option.

Lastly, when you say ''huckster capitalism run rampant'' it implies that capitalism is to blame here. I see this everywhere, and it's disturbing. Most people now confuse pure, unhampered, free-market-based capitalism with the heterogeneous system we have now of some capitalism, which is subverted by a capital-destroying tax and monetary policy, socialist programs, intervention-plagued ''free'' markets, government sanctioned monopolies, and privileged interest groups, etc. In capitalism, everyone is free to put products and services on the market. Consumers alone decide who gets rewarded for their effort. Consumers are king. They hold the power in their purses to make or break a company. The absolute only way a company can exploit its workers and/or continue to provide unsatisfactory products to consumers, is by getting the government to protect them and prevent a potential competing company or companies from entering the market and offering alternatives for the consumer. The politicians and the protected company win (in the short term) at the expense of the general population.

It is super-popular nowadays to blame capitalism, but in fact, the accelerating eradication of capitalism is the real source of our troubles. As an aside, I read a blog recently that cited the ongoing government debt crisis in the EU as a sign that ''we are approaching the limits of capitalism''. I hope it is obvious how insanely clueless that person is when it comes to economics, and how we all could do ourselves a service and educate ourselves on the real causes, the root causes of our problems. I recommend the following book as a good start:
Economics in One Lesson: The Shortest and Surest Way to Understand Basic Economics

In reply to an earlier post on Nov 1, 2011 4:45:51 PM PDT
Malvin says:
Hi Anthony,

Thank you for a very thoughtful comment.

Of course I do disagree with your premise: I do think capitalism's tendency towards profit-maximization does in fact explain why shoddy food products made from the cheapest available (but addictive) ingredients crowd out nutritious foods on your local grocer's store shelves. Huckster capitalism refers to the marketing of products of low nutritional value (such as sugary cereals) to children, who are aggressively targeted before they have developed the mental acuity to resist this kind of 'advertising'. In fact, I'm not sure that hucksterism isn't too kind when describing this shameful but common practice in the food industry. And rather than allowing the market to do its worst as you suggest, I would not think it inappropriate for the government to want to regulate these kinds of practices out of existence.

Having said that, you make an excellent point about government protecting certain industries. However, I view this as evidence of corporate control of government; not the other way around, as you suggest. On that point, I believe you would find much in Ms. Nestle's research to be helpful in understanding this issue as it pertains to the food industry in the U.S.

Best regards,


In reply to an earlier post on Nov 2, 2011 1:17:25 PM PDT
Hi Malvin,

Thank you for your engaging reply.

Again, I don't understand how a company can maximize profits, or make any at all, if people don't buy its products, cheap ingredients or not. It just doesn't add up. Businesses stop making stuff that doesn't sell. Otherwise they'd lose all their money. The only entity with the power to force us to pay for anything is the government. The cold, hard fact is, people voluntarily buy these products, regardless of their merit. No one forces us at gunpoint to buy Frosted Flakes, Cocoa Pebbles, or Coca-Cola. Advertising may hook kids on sugary cereals and sodas, but do kids do the grocery shopping? Why do parents let their kids eat this stuff? Again, I'm not advocating these products. I'm just pointing out fundamental questions for which a satisfactory answer has not yet been provided.

Yes, corporate or industry lobbyists continually press for legislation that protects or favors them at the expense of consumers. I've even heard of companies actually drafting the legislation (which is scary). Even so, technically congress, the senate, and the president are the ones who enact our laws, and theoretically at least we still have some power over them with our votes and public opinion.

I think we need to stop attacking capitalism (whatever that term means anymore) and instead take more personal responsibility, viz. boycott products we don't like, and stop voting for corporate-owned politicians, rather than suggesting ways the government can not only further expand its power to interfere in the market, but with our right to freedom of speech also. And since, as they say, ''it's all about the money,'' it logically follows that we, as customers, have a lot of power to affect change based on what we purchase (that's precisely why companies ask for government protection from us), and we should use it more effectively. In any case, funny it seems we both want the same thing, but are approaching it from opposite angles.

Best regards,


In reply to an earlier post on Nov 2, 2011 3:32:22 PM PDT
Malvin says:
Hi Anthony,

I appreciate your thoughts. If there is one issue where one might want to put aside politics, it is on the issue of the food we put in our bodies. I think we all want our children to eat healthy foods.

I would simply point out to you that corporations wouldn't advertise if they didn't think it worked. Certainly, children should spend less time watching TV; corporations shouldn't lie about the (false) health benefits of their products; fresh fruit and produce should be accessible to all including those who do not own automobiles; nor should many households require both parents to work two jobs or endure long commutes to make ends meet. But that is not the world we live in. So, the idea that most consumers can make perfectly rational and sound decisions in light of these pressures, as you suggest, is perhaps asking too much. In any case, I think these are a few reasons why so many of us make unhealthy food choices.

In my opinion, Ms. Nestle does a good job acknowledging these realities in her book while suggesting how we can do better. It seems to me that you have an inquisitive, open mind. I think you should give it a read!



In reply to an earlier post on Nov 3, 2011 11:43:42 AM PDT
Hi again Malvin,

I appreciate your responses. Yes, of course it would be very nice if everyone ate healthy food. And I think the right politics (no subsidies or tariffs on food, or other market interference) would greatly help that cause. Our government takes money from our pockets (in upwards of $180 billion a year - see Wikipedia ''Agricultural subsidies - US'') and redistributes it to farmers, keeping some in business artificially - and giving all recipients a competitive edge - instead of allowing cheaper imports to reach our markets. This acts to prevent poor countries from developing a strong agricultural base, which is needed before their sustainable industrialization can occur, and it makes our food more expensive. I think this is a far more difficult and pressing issue than cereal commercials (which can be avoided very simply by making t.v., except educational programs maybe, off-limits to your children.)

In any case, I will leave the discussion at that and consider the book.



BTW, I would point out to you that nobody would do anything if they didn't think it worked - not even corporations who advertise...

In reply to an earlier post on Nov 3, 2011 4:38:49 PM PDT
Malvin says:

Thanks for your thoughtful comments.


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