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Exposé from a Food Policy Insider
Book Review

Food Politics: How the Food Industry Influences Nutrition and Health by Marion Nestle, Ph.D., M.P.H. 469 pages, University of California Press, March, 2002

June 5, 2002 -- Marion Nestle's Food Politics is not like Fast Food Nation, or John Robbins' books such as his recent The Food Revolution, or Frances Moore Lappe's works including her new Hope's Edge. Unlike these books, Food Politics doesn't take a strong ethical or emotional stance on food issues.

What it does do, though, is quietly and systematically, with the careful scholarship of a master academician, show how the U.S. food industry works relentlessly to get you to eat more. And how very often it is the worst foods, the least healthy foods, the foods lowest in essential nutrients and highest in fat and sugar, that get promoted the most.

Nestle is an insider. She is part of the establishment. She managed the editorial production of the first, and as yet the only, Surgeon General's Report on Nutrition and Health. She says that on her first day on the job, "I was given the rules: No matter what the research indicated, the report could not recommend 'eat less meat'… (because) the producers of foods that might be affected by such advice would complain to their beneficiaries in Congress, and the report would never be published."

No subsequent Surgeon General's Report has appeared, even though Congress passed a law in 1990 requiring that one be issued every two years. Why? The answer, according to Nestle, is food politics. She points out that "saturated fat and trans-saturated fat raise risks for heart disease, and the principal sources of such fats in American diets are meat, dairy, cooking fats, and fried, fast, and processed foods." Any advice of federal policies that sought to decrease consumption of these foods would cause the sellers of these foods "to complain to their friends in Congress."

One of the strengths of Food Politics is Nestle's description of the deliberate use of young children as sales targets. Children are eating too much of the wrong kinds of foods. Obesity rates are skyrocketing. And the food industry is spending billions to keep kids hooked on junk food. In 1997, U.S. children obtained no less than 50% of their calories from added fat and sugar.

Nestle points out that soft drink companies unapologetically name 8- to 12-year-olds as marketing targets. McDonald's produces commercials, advertisements, and a website aimed specifically at children aged 8-13. Quaker Oats happily spends $15 million to promote sales of its heavily sugared Cap'Crunch cereal to children. Teletubbies, the public television program for toddlers, was first sponsored by Burger King, and later by McDonald's. Meanwhile, only 1% of U.S. children regularly eat diets that even resemble the recommended proportions of the Food Pyramid.

In 1987, researchers counted 225 commercials on major television network channels during Saturday morning hours. In 1992, the number had increased to 433. By 1994, the number had grown to 997. And these ever increasing ads are hardly for healthy foods. The vast majority are for hamburgers, candy bars, fast food, soft drinks, cookies, chips, and heavily sugared breakfast cereals. Researchers could not find a single commercial for fruits or vegetables.

Meanwhile, schools are being converted into vehicles for selling foods high in calories but low in nutritional value. One of the most deplorable examples is "pouring rights" - large payments from soft drink companies to school districts in return for the exclusive right to sell that company's products in every one of the district's schools.

Soft drink companies have for years sold their products on school and college campuses through vending machines. But "pouring rights" represents a major step forward in the campaign to encourage kids to drink more, much more. From 1985 to 1997, Nestle points out, school districts increased their purchases of soft drinks by a staggering 1,100%.

The marketing strategy is effective. The soft drink companies make large lump-sum payments to school districts and additional payments for 5 to 10 years. In return, the companies get more than exclusive rights to sell their products in school vending machines and at all school events. They get to turn schools into advertising vehicles for their products. The agreements, says Nestle, "result in constant advertising through display of company logos on vending machines, cups, sportswear, brochures, and school buildings. In this manner, all students in the school, even those too young or too difficult to reach by conventional advertising methods, receive constant exposure to the logos and products. The use of a single brand is designed to create loyalty among young people who have a lifetime of soft drink purchases ahead of them."

Soft drink companies are putting vending machines into schools with younger and younger children, and they are putting larger and larger cans of soda in the machines. By 2001, soft drink companies were routinely placing 20-ounce cans in school vending machines. In addition, says Nestle, "they are vended in portable screw-top plastic bottles that permit sipping throughout the day rather than downing in one gulp. This last feature particularly distresses dental groups alarmed about how the sugar and acid in soft drinks so easily dissolve tooth enamel.

One of the most objectionable aspects to these pouring contracts is that they link how much money the companies pay the schools to the amounts that students drink. This gives schools a financial incentive to encourage kids to drink more soda. Schools get cash bonuses for exceeding sales targets, and other additional benefits for consumption levels that surpass sales quotas. This puts school administrators in the position of pushing soft drinks to faculty, staff, and students. In one incident, a high school in Georgia suspended a senior student because he wore a shirt with a Pepsi logo to a "Coke Day" rally sponsored by the student government.

Soft drinks, of course, are a nutritional disaster. A 12-ounce can contains about 3 tablespoons of sugar and 160 calories, but nothing else of nutritional value. The Center for Science in the Public Interest calls soft drinks "liquid candy." Actually, they may be worse for kids than candy, because, unlike candy, they also contain caffeine. A 12-ounce can of cola contains about 45 milligrams of caffeine. More potent soft drinks can exceed 100 milligrams, a level approaching that found in coffee. Sodas also contain phosphoric acid which acidifies the body, contributing to osteoporosis and aiding and abetting cancer.

Meanwhile, soft drink companies deliberately market caffeinated sodas to children as young as age nine. A PepsiCo official says that "marketing to the 8- to 12- year old set is a priority." And some soft drink companies actually license their logos to makers of infant-feeding bottles.

How do the companies justify their practices? A spokesman for Coca-Cola argues that his company "makes no nutritional claims for soft drinks…but they can be part of a balanced diet. Our strategy is we want to put soft drinks within arm's reach of desire…and schools are one channel we want to make them available in." As far as government efforts to restrict such marketing practices, "We question whether there is a need for 'Big Brother' in the form of USDA injecting itself into decisions when it comes to refreshment choices."

Food Politics is a scholarly work. Reading it, you don't often get a feel for Nestle's own personal beliefs. She doesn't discuss her own diet. She's not a muckraker. She is an honest, sincere, and knowledgeable person working to change the system from the inside. Food Politics is an academically scrupulous account of how the food industry in the United States controls government nutrition policies. It's important and eye-opening reading for anyone looking to make intelligent and informed food choices.

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