Book Review: Food Politics
Politics: How the Food Industry Influences
Nutrition and Health.
By Marion Nestle.
Reviewed by Stephen H. Webb
University of California Press,
Stephen Webb is associate professor of
religion and philosophy at Wabash College
in Crawfordsville, Indiana and author
of Good Eating.
[This article appeared in The Christian
Century, April 10-17, 2002, pp. 35-37.
Copyright by The Christian Century Foundation;
used by permission. Current articles and
subscription information can be found
This material was prepared for Religion
Online by Ted and Winnie Brock.]
Food kills. Though you can drive safely
while eating a hamburger, and nobody has
proven that donuts are addictive, the
fast food culture is as dangerous as an
underage driver with a six-pack or a middle-aged
man with a carton of smokes. Of course,
food is necessary for life, but that only
makes the American food industry more
insidious. As long as we want more than
carrot sticks, brown rice and tofu, according
to Marion Nestle's new book, food companies
will continue to be as deceptive as big
tobacco and as cozy with the government
as the military industry. Food does not
really kill, then. Only people do -- the
people who trade on confusion and affluence
to market food that tastes so good people
will risk their health for it.
Food Politics shows how the food industry
turns wholesome natural ingredients into
sweet, fatty and salty products. Only
a fraction of what we pay at the supermarket
goes to the producers of raw food. The
cost of the corn in Kellogg's Corn Flakes,
for example, is less than 10 percent of
the retail price. Food companies must
add value to the original ingredients
in order to turn a profit -- but the more
they add, the more consumers seem to lose.
Any way you look at it, the numbers add
up to one conclusion: Americans are getting
more obese by the minute. Nestle, chair
of nutrition studies at New York University,
has been on the front line of the food
wars as managing editor of the first --
and so far only -- Surgeon General's Report
on Nutrition and Health, which appeared
in 1988. Her book offers ample proof that
for the sake of profit large corporations
conspire with the government to manipulate
and confuse consumers. While her research
on the cynicism of the food industry and
complacency of the government is alarming,
her rhetoric is predictable. Indeed, her
conspiracy theory fits right into the
culture of victimhood and complaint.
Nestle never quite answers the question
of how taste buds could be so vulnerable
to systematic manipulation and deception.
What is missing is a broader grasp of
the basic human problem of gluttony and
a more historical analysis of the symbolic
and ritualistic aspects of eating.
Meat, for example, is deeply ingrained
in the American diet. For many men, cooking
and cutting meat is a basic expression
of masculinity, and for many Americans,
a meal without meat is simply not a meal.
Yet the science of nutrition has been
preaching the benefits of a plant-based
diet for over 50 years. For evidence,
one need only note how the diet of those
living in poor countries saves them from
many of the diseases that plague affluent
Remarkably, the number of overweight
people in the world, 1.1 billion, now
equals the number of undernourished people.
Nonetheless, the media are awash with
conflicting food studies, and confused
consumers are eating more animal-based
foods than ever before.
Nestle admits that scientific nutritional
advice, which basically boils down to
"eat your veggies," can be dull.
Such advice is also vulnerable to the
food industry's well-funded efforts to
undermine dietary recommendations. For
example, meat producers successfully changed
the original language of the USDA Food
Pyramid from "eat less meat and dairy
foods" to "choose lean meat"
and consume products "low in saturated
The results of such obfuscations are
disastrous. Nestle points out that cigarette
smoking and poor diet each contribute
to about one-fifth of annual deaths in
the U.S. The simple message of "Don't
smoke" should be coupled with another
national campaign slogan: "Eat less."
More specifically, "Eat less meat
and less sugar." Nevertheless, food
companies continue to argue that any food
product can be part of a balanced diet.
The irony is that we are the victims
of our own success. The American food
supply is so abundant that we can feed
everyone in this country twice over, even
after subtracting food exports. This surplus,
combined with an affluent population,
forces the food industry into a fierce
competition for consumer dollars. To generate
profits, food companies must accomplish
one of two aims. They must persuade us
to choose their product rather than their
competitor's. Or they must convince us
to eat more than we should, in order to
increase their sales. The foods that are
most profitable to the industry are those
high in fat, sugar and salt. So the bottom
line of corporate profit relies on the
expanding posteriors of the American public.
As Nestle points out, most of us think
that we choose food based on taste, cost
and convenience; we resist thinking of
ourselves as easy targets of marketing
strategies. Consequently, we overestimate
our own rationality and underestimate
the power of advertising. Just try taking
some kids to a McDonald's and forcing
them to order salad. We are much less
in control of our lives than we would
like to think.
Indeed, marketers are especially adept
at intriguing children with bad food.
Soft drink companies, for example, hook
younger children on "liquid candy"
in order to establish brand loyalty at
the earliest possible age. As a result,
most children consume too many calories
-- child obesity is rising at alarming
rates -- and still do not come close to
having diets that meet nutritional recommendations.
According to Nestle, American children
obtain 50 percent of their calories from
added fat and sugar, while only 1 percent
of them eat according to the Food Pyramid.
There are signs that people are becoming
aware of the need for greater accountability
in the food industry. With increasing
worry about terrorism, food safety has
now become a priority for the government,
and politicians are talking about consolidating
the various federal inspection programs
into one agency that would be responsible
for policing the nation's food supply.
This would vastly improve the current
system, in which the Food and Drug Administration
is responsible for cheese pizza and the
Agriculture Department is responsible
for pepperoni pizza. But even heightened
concerns about domestic security might
not be enough to shake the food industry's
influence over federal policy.
The solution to food politics is not
food science. The problem with diet goes
deeper than that. What we eat is an expression
of who we are, and how we eat is governed
by ritual and tradition. Diet is too personal
to be political and too habitual to be
affected by facts and statistics. Most
people need to have a change of heart
before they will change what they eat.
This is why so many vegetarians act like
they have joined a new religious movement
when they reject our carnivorous culture.
The solution is a total transformation
of our lives that would include, rather
than ignore, the question of diet.
Many of the early church fathers argued
that gluttony was the original sin. That
we so ravenously eat what we know we shouldn't
is one of the surest signs that our stomachs
are out of alignment with our heads. If
food can kill us, then fast food is slow
murder, and our bodies cry out against
us. Far from being passive victims of
the super-size-it food race, we hustle
toward the finish line of obesity and
heart disease, even though our gait is
slowed by our girth.
In eating as in sex, the means has become
the end. Pleasure, not nourishment or
procreation, is our goal. Indeed, Nestle
makes the case that food companies treat
nutrition as only one ingredient in a
product's marketing strategy. Colored
ketchup, meat-flavored French fries and
genetically modified potatoes all indicate
that we have learned to treat the laws
of nature as obstacles to be overcome,
not necessary limits provided by God.
Where morality is reduced to personal
taste, it should not be surprising that
eating is liberated from healthy constraints.
We eat in ways that would have made even
the Roman emperors blush with envy.
Such gluttony has resulted in a protest
movement that seeks salvation in whole
foods and free-range meats. Some small
food companies that meet this demand are
now trying to educate consumers about
healthy dietary decisions. Large corporations,
however, inevitably turn the romantic
return-to-nature movement into yet another
ingredient of the relentless pursuit of
We cannot go back to the diet of Eden,
but we can develop theologies that treat
food as a religious concern. One measure
of the practical relevance of every theology
should be how it helps us to find God's
grace in the food we eat, so that our
mealtime prayers really speak to what
is at hand. Every meal should anticipate
the heavenly banquet of the peaceable
kingdom, where everyone will have enough
to eat and no blood is shed.
Every meal should also be a reflection
of that most fundamental of Christian
meals, the Eucharist. The Eucharist, in
fact, should shape not only how but also
what we eat. It is a frugal and peaceful
meal. While it is often glibly said that
you are what you eat, in the Eucharist
we truly hope one day to be worthy of
the food of which we partake.