Marion Nestle knows it’s not easy to be a smart consumer of food, or of media. The only solution may be to get political.

Marion Nestle portrait over gradient background. September 2020

Photo by Bill Hayes / Graphic by Tricia Vuong

The Counter asks every journalist’s go-to nutrition expert how to infuse our consumption with some critical thinking.

When I spoke to Marion Nestle two days into September, it felt like I was calling from another life, far removed from the one I’d been living when I last saw her.

But in fact, it was only mid-February when we had crossed paths, at New York University, where Nestle is the Paulette Goddard professor of nutrition, food studies, and public health, emerita. She chaired NYU’s Nutrition and Food Studies department from 1988 to 2003, then kept teaching until her retirement in September of 2017. 

Nestle had popped into a journalism workshop given by me and our West Coast editor, Karen Stabiner, for students of NYU’s graduate food studies program. Before the pandemic, the Counter’s editors regularly ran these workshops, like a traveling roadshow of sorts, for aspiring food journalists, farmers-who-write, writers-who-farm, and others interested learning how to tell stories for the rapidly evolving industry loosely termed “food media.”

As journalists covering food’s intersection with politics, business, and culture, our job is to help readers understand what’s happening behind the topical headlines in general news and lifestyle publications—that is, how money and power structures influence what’s available in your grocery store, what it costs, and how good it might be for you and your environment. Regrettably, that job is complicated these days by having to explain too often what is and isn’t journalism, and, well … how money and power structures influence what makes news.

Book cover of Let's Ask Marion. September 2020

University of California Press

In her new book, Let’s Ask Marion, a series of short essays that explore her current thinking on food-system issues (published September 1 by the University of California Press), Nestle defines the term “ultra-processed,” which she says “refers specifically to products that are industrially produced, bear no resemblance to the foods from which they were extracted, and contain additives never found in home kitchens.”

It seems to me that information itself is proffered in those same three varieties: unprocessed, processed, and ultra-processed. The influences that determine whether a food story becomes a quick-click listicle or an investigative deep dive aren’t so different from those that have positioned Doritos at eye level on grocery store shelves. If the vast industry known as “the media” fulfills the wishes of its financial shareholders first, readers won’t notice whether they’re being sold a flimsy product or being handed actual facts, responsibly reported by a human being. As Nestle has pointed out ad infinitum in her books, the same is true of food companies.

We should be comparing the effects of digital media’s junk food for the mind on our ability to make well-reasoned decisions with the effects of junk food on our bodies.

It occurred to me somewhere halfway through Let’s Ask Marion, the latest of 11 books Nestle has written (she has edited three), that, having pinpointed how much agriculture, Wall Street, and food regulation have changed since her first book was published in 1985, she’d also have much to say about how information has changed in that time.

And what I really wanted to ask her was, how can we get smarter about it? And what do we after that?

This conversation has been condensed for length and edited for clarity.

Kate Cox: I see parallels between how you describe food systems in the book—they “generate and perpetuate inequities”—and how advances in digital media and technology have established similar castes in the information we consume. Sure, there’s plenty of accurate, solidly reported news on food and agriculture … if you know where to look. But food companies are as good at selling food as they are at selling content these days. I’d call much of what’s available to readers on social media and in lifestyle food media “ultra-processed…”

Marion Nestle: …that’s a wonderful comparison. I’m going to steal that.

KC: Really, by the time it reaches a reader, most food and nutrition information has wandered too far from its source, been through too many processes, and is packaged to look and feel too good to be true. No wonder people are so confused!

MN: Well, I think the parallels are absolutely amazing. I can see that this book is going to cause me a great deal of unexpected difficulty. Everybody in the world will be asking me questions and expect me to know the answers. Just this morning, someone I don’t know sent me an online report about a study claiming that if you eat dairy foods, you have an 80 percent higher risk of getting breast cancer.

Her question was, “What do you think of this?” What am I supposed to think of this? And I thought, oh, this book is going to get me into trouble because I’m going to have questions like these all day long and some will be really hard to answer.

For this one, I had to go look at the study. No surprise, that’s not what the study said; it’s what the online reviewer of that study chose to say about it. This woman may never eat dairy products again, which is fine. She doesn’t need them. Dairy products are not essential for health. But it’s that kind of thing: getting batted back and forth by information put forward as extreme because that’s what gets your attention. Nobody wants to read boring things about nutrition. You want to read exciting, interesting, breakthrough kinds of things.

My word for breakthroughs is “nutrifluff,” junk-food nutrition. It’s been a problem as long as I can remember. When I first started out teaching about nutrition, Linus Pauling’s Vitamin C and the Common Cold was really popular. Pauling, a distinguished scientist with two Nobel Prizes, argued that if you took 10 grams a day of vitamin C, you’d never get cancer and you’d never get a cold. That made no sense then and it still doesn’t. It’s been proven wrong over and over again.

That was in the early 1970s. What’s changed is the loudness of the platform. Today, somebody with an idea like this suddenly picks up hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of followers on Twitter and Instagram and Facebook and all these other platforms that I mostly don’t use. 

The magnification is enormous and it’s become an enormous societal problem, and not just in food. It’s an enormous political problem for society. It influences elections. It incites violence. We don’t, as a society, know how to deal with it because it just seems like entertainment, not like something we need to worry about. 

KC: I want to go back to nutrition studies for a moment. Most people won’t read a complete nutrition study from its source. They’ll read a version that’s been distilled down to its topline findings by a reporter on deadline and headlined by an editor writing for SEO. What did you advise the woman who wrote you this morning to keep in mind?

MN: My advice to anyone surprised by a new study is to use common sense. If the study seems absolutely incredible, it’s because it is incredible. Be skeptical. If you see a report of a study with results that are hugely different from what your understanding is of basic nutrition, it’s time to invoke some skepticism. Does it make common sense to think that dairy foods induce breast cancer? Wouldn’t we have a lot more breast cancer if dairy foods caused a large increase in risk? Many—if not most—women eat dairy foods. Dairy foods may be associated with an increased risk of breast cancer, but lots of other things also influence that risk. 

I always suggest asking: What’s going on here? Who paid for this? What’s the ideology of the person who is making this claim? The report about the breast cancer study came from someone who may be vegan and doesn’t eat dairy foods. Vegan diets can be really healthy. But I think evidence is clear that largely plant-based diets are, too.

Because food is something that we put in our bodies, everybody takes diets personally. What we eat is subject to all kinds of influences: who our peers are, what our belief systems are, as well as the research. 

KC: You’re making a point I want to echo, which is that critical thinking is as vital to how we address what you call our “Big Three” greatest public health problems: hunger (affecting roughly a billion people globally), obesity (two billion and rising), and climate change (everybody)—as politics are, but I—

MN: We need it in politics too.

KC: Absolutely, we do need critical thinking in politics—more than ever. And you encourage readers to advocate for better food systems via political engagement. But before we can counter the political forces that created our public health problems, critical thinking about food and nutrition needs to be our routine. Where do you think we should start? How can we get people to approach anything they read about food and nutrition with a critical eye?

MN: Well, the image that came into my mind while you were asking this was of [chef] Jamie Oliver’s television series, “Food Revolution.” One scene took my breath away. In a grammar-school classroom, he showed kids various kinds of fruits and vegetables. The kids had never seen a real tomato or a real potato and didn’t know what they were. I don’t know how much of that was staged, but for me, it was a gasp-inducing moment. Basic knowledge about food is pretty low in America. The good thing is that this was a teachable moment; the teacher got to work and when Oliver returned, the kids could identify all kinds of foods. Garden programs in schools have made a real difference.

People thought Alice Waters was totally unrealistic when she talked about schools having gardens, but now tens of thousands of schools have them. When I go into schools with gardening programs, I see kids who know a lot about food. They’ve grown it, they’ve harvested it, they’ve prepared it, they’ve tasted it. They know what real food is. I hope that critical thinking is built into that. I can see that the teachers are encouraging the kids to question the knowledge that they’re getting, and to probe more deeply. That’s what education is supposed to do. And to the extent that it does, it’s a beautiful thing to watch.

KC: I don’t think that even as adults we’re very good at interrogating information. And we’re not too good at spotting bias, either. It’s become even harder over the decade or more that I’ve been reporting on public health issues, specifically. I have great sympathy for eaters with questions.

MN: I think it’s really hard to evaluate nutrition information unless you are taught media literacy, which is a whole field in itself. Somebody wrote me last week and gave me a great tip. He said that every time he and his kids see a commercial on television, he asks them: What are they trying to sell?

He’s teaching his kids critical thinking: This is a commercial; they’re paying a lot of money to try to show you something. Why? The answer isn’t always obvious. Even Coca-Cola commercials rarely say anything about Coca-Cola. They just show you ordinary people or celebrities drinking them.  

I think it’s important to teach kids how to be sharp observers of what’s going on. This requires a real effort. When I wrote Food Politics in 2002, people were puzzled: What does food have to do with politics?

I wrote the book because I was going to meetings about childhood obesity where everybody was asking: How on earth are we going to teach mothers to feed their kids better? I’m thinking, you’re kidding me. How about helping mothers feed their kids better in a culture in which they’re being bombarded with junk food ads all the time, but nobody notices? 

The impetus for Food Politics was a meeting I attended at the National Cancer Institute in the early 1990s, where researchers and anti-smoking advocates gave slide talks about cigarette marketing. One talk included slides of Joe Camel and other methods for marketing to children. I knew that cigarette companies marketed to children. I had certainly seen Joe Camel ads. But I had never paid attention to them.  They were just part of the landscape.

That was a turning point. I thought, “Okay, we’ve got to do this for food.” I’m supposedly trained in this kind of thing. But once I started noticing, I was just stunned by what I saw. Once you notice, you can’t ever forget about it, which is why it’s so important.

KC: That experience—beginning to notice—is the turning point for many people when it comes to getting involved politically, too. If you want to understand how politics affect personal dietary choices, as well as the truly global nature of current food systems, this book is your invitation.

And this is the shorthand: Food is political, period. As we publish this interview, we’re 54 days out from the presidential election and six months into a pandemic that can’t be transmitted through food but is tied, at least tangentially, to the ways we produce food across the globe.

What do you tell people once they’ve made these connections and want to know what to do next?

MN: When people ask me what they can do, I say: Run for office!

I am all for figuring out how to use food to make a difference in peoples’ lives, personally. That’s not easy, but it’s worth trying. I’m a great believer in policy, but we also need personal action to move that policy. If you vote with your fork, you’re setting an example for your family and friends. That can have an influence. People tend to minimize the voting-with-your-fork approach, but I think it helps influence people you deal with on a daily basis. But it also matters even more to vote with your vote. This year for sure, you and everyone else has to vote.

Everything we’re talking about falls right smack in the middle of the coronavirus pandemic. This virus revealed problems in the food system that most people didn’t know anything about. Who knew that workers in meatpacking plants and slaughterhouses, on farms, and in grocery stores were so “essential” that they had to go to work, at great risk of infection, despite low wages, and minimal sick leave and health care benefits? I can’t think of a better example of economic, social, and racial inequities in action. And what about schools? All of a sudden everyone realizes that they are not just places to learn; they are places where kids get fed.

If the pandemic does any good at all—and I sure hope it does—it will be to teach the public how food systems work, why we so badly need socially just food systems, and what we all should be doing to advocate for a healthier, more sustainable, and more equitable food system.

You don’t have to get involved politically to see politics in action every single day. If you’ve got kids who eat breakfast or lunch at school, you are in fact colliding with some of the most powerful policy forces in the country. In this excerpt from Let’s Ask Marion, Nestle answers the question, posed by her counterpart, Kerry Trueman, who plays the role of questioner in these essays: Why are kids still waiting for universal healthy school lunches?

Chapter 9: Why Isn’t Healthy School Food a No-Brainer?

Kerry: Our politicians often cite their fervent desire to “create a better future” for the next generation. If only that noble vision truly motivated them to use their legislative powers to benefit all our children, regardless of race, class, region, religion, or any other category that might foster marginalization.

The way that politicians allocate resources and establish guidelines for the National School Lunch Program suggests that universal healthy school lunches are a much lower priority than funneling government aid to industrialized agriculture. How else to explain the eternal reluctance to rethink agricultural and nutritional policies that actually encourage childhood obesity and diabetes?

Surely it would be less expensive in the long run to provide adequate funding to feed all our children well? Why isn’t it a no-brainer to pass policies that nourish school kids with wholesome, nutritious lunches?

Marion: The short answer: money and politics. You and I might view school food as an issue that unites everyone across the entire political spectrum. Doesn’t everyone want schools to give kids the nutritional power they need to become strong, smart, and effective adults? Apparently not.

Recall what happened to Michelle Obama’s Let’s Move campaign. In 2010, the then–first lady took on childhood obesity as her personal cause. I was thrilled that someone in the White House actually cared about the same food issues I did. I thought her focus on school food was terrific but wondered if the first lady knew what she was taking on. Did she think school food would be a nonpartisan issue that schools, parents, and Congress could all rally behind? Or did she know right from the start that in advocating for healthier school food, she would have to confront the food industry about what it was selling to schools and marketing to kids?

To the extent she could, Michelle Obama did confront this industry, starting with encouraging Congress to pass the Healthy Hunger-Free Kids Act of 2010. Because this act set nutrition standards for all foods served in schools, I wondered whether legislators had read its fine print. “All” included not only federally subsidized breakfasts and lunches, but also snacks and sodas sold outside of those meals. Once the USDA published its proposals for nutrition standards mandated by the act, I was not surprised that all hell broke loose.

Lobbyists swarmed Congress. Food companies spent millions to convince legislators to weaken the standards so their products could continue to be sold in schools. Potato trade associations and pizza suppliers spent even more millions to lobby against proposed limits on the number of times fried potatoes could be served in a week, and on the volume of tomato paste that qualified as a vegetable. This worked. You might think that Congress ought to have better things to do, but it directed the USDA to let schools serve French fries every day and count even a spoonful of tomato sauce on pizza as a serving of vegetables (I’m not making this up).

Once the USDA issued the final rules, the opposition became even louder, much of it from an unexpected source—the School Nutrition Association (SNA), which represents school food service personnel. The SNA had four complaints: school meal programs are underfunded (this one has merit), the kids don’t like the food, the new standards cause more waste, and schools need more time to change their menus (these last three are contradicted by research). Taking up where food companies left off, the SNA leadership— against the will of much of its membership—lobbied Congress and the USDA, organized opposition to the standards, and paid for its own self-serving research. Why? It can hardly be a coincidence that 40 percent of the SNA’s funding comes from companies that sell food products to schools.

Despite all this, school meals seem greatly improved. I visit schools every chance I get to see for myself what the meals look like, how they taste, and whether the kids are eating them. Thanks to dedicated food service workers, some schools run exemplary meal programs. The food smells good, the kids eat it, and not much goes into the garbage. In others, the food is just fine, but the kids aren’t eating it. In still others, nothing works. The critical difference? The adults who run the program. If they care about feeding kids—and many do—it’s a good bet that the food is edible and the kids are eating it.

But funding is a genuine barrier. Unlike any other public school program, meals are expected to be self-supporting. USDA reimbursements for the meals have to cover the cost of labor and supplies and leave barely enough for the food. Schools without kitchens must rely on more expensive pre-prepared meals. USDA payments depend on participation levels, but only some children are eligible for free or reduced-price meals, leading to heartbreaking problems of denial of benefits and stigmatization. One way to solve these problems would be to make school meals universal—free breakfasts and lunches for all children. New York City is doing this, to excellent effect. No child should ever go hungry. Universal school meals should be national policy.

Wherever possible, so should school gardens. In some of New York City’s poorest neighborhoods, I’ve seen public school kids harvest salad greens from pots and planters, wash and prepare them, eat them, and ask for seconds. By this time, plenty of research shows that school gardens encourage kids to like and eat vegetables, and it would be wonderful if every school had one, even if only in pots on windowsills.

But can we do anything to stop the food industry from relentlessly marketing ultraprocessed products to kids in schools and at home? Michelle Obama tried.

She told food industry executives that they needed to entirely rethink the products they were offering and how they marketed their products to children. Brave words. But I once attended a White House meeting where food company representatives flatly drew the line at having to stop marketing to kids: “We have a fiduciary duty to our stockholders,” they told us. From their standpoint, corporate profits had to come first; considerations of children’s health were decidedly secondary.

I cannot fathom how school food has become a flash point for pushback over nanny-state overreach. Food companies are brilliant at exploiting parental insecurity about feeding kids. Anything that feels like a criticism of parenting practices adds to anxiety. If schools do not sell sodas and snacks, discourage teachers from rewarding kids with candy, and restrict cupcakes for birthday celebrations, some parents feel personally criticized and complain. Schools need to take such complaints seriously, explain why they want kids to eat more healthfully, and ask to be given a chance to demonstrate the value of creating a healthier food environment.

I wish there were an easy way for everyone connected with schools to see the bigger picture of junk food in schools. In her 2019 book Kid Food, Bettina Siegel tracks the astonishing amount of sweets given to kids in classes as treats or rewards for correct answers. One of our NYU doctoral students who worked in an elementary school could hardly believe what parents brought in for birthday celebrations. She added up the calories from cake, ice cream, candy, punch, or snacks: 250 to 450 per kid per celebration, and this for kindergarten kids, no less.

Schools need more money for school meals, and free or affordable meals should be universal. But it would be good if the meals were based on food, not food products, and kept ultraprocessed items to a minimum. Birthdays and other celebrations could be managed— limited to once a week or month—to minimize calories, especially from sugar. Gold stars for performance worked for me when I was a kid. Could we try something like that again? And as long as we get to dream about what might be ideal, let’s make sure schools have functioning kitchens and gardens whenever they can, and teach kids to grow and prepare food. I’ve been in schools where all this is happening, and it is a beautiful thing to see. Kids in schools in neighborhoods rich and poor deserve this and more.

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Kate Cox is The Counter's editor. She oversees partnerships and edits investigative, feature, and senior staff reporting. Prior to joining The Counter in 2015, Kate was a freelance reporter for radio and text, focused on health policy and the American age boom. She has written for The Guardian, The Nation, Huffington Post, and others. She holds a master's degree from Columbia University's Graduate School of Journalism, where she produced and reported a three-part radio documentary on the nation's first emergency shelter for victims of elder abuse.