April 28, 2006 3:38 PM PDT

Voting with a fork: The politics of food

SAN FRANCISCO--From California, where it's grown, to a destination like Manhattan, prepackaged spinach can stew for 10 to 14 days before it hits grocery store aisles.

That bit of unsettling news isn't something shoppers would likely see advertised in stores. Rather, it took some sleuthing by a nutritionist who was researching an upcoming book to find out how "fresh" spinach in a bag really is.

"It took quite a long time to find anyone who would divulge that piece of information. And I could see why," said Marion Nestle, scientist, New York University professor and author of "Food Politics" and the new tome, "What to Eat: An Aisle-by-Aisle Guide to Savvy Food Choices and Good Eating," which is due to come out May 2. Nestle spoke here this week about food politics in the United States, as part of San Francisco's City Arts and Lectures series.

Without a doubt, people love to eat. What's less enjoyable for many health-conscious consumers is the confusion and anxiety brought on by deciding what--and how much--food to eat. From carbohydrates and trans-fats to antioxidants and mercury, most people are baffled trying to identify what a truly "healthy" lifestyle is. The details of diseases, ingredients and nutrients seem to change weekly, based on new diet fads or research studies. Food labeling alone is enough to make people's head spin. Eggs, for example, can be conventional, brown or white, locally grown, organic or "United Egg Producers Certified," not to mention the various brands under which they are sold.

So who benefits from this confusion about nutrition and health? Nestle argues in her book "What to Eat" that the food, restaurant, fast-food, diet, health-club, drug and health-care industries all benefit most. For the health-care industry, for example, it would cost more to provide preventive services for an entire population than to pay for treatment for a smaller population that becomes ill, according to her book, which cites economic studies.

All this boils down to food politics. Under a government Nestle described as "corporate friendly" and having a closed approach to food safety and related problems, researching details about the food supply in the United States can be tough.

Yet the food supply and its politics may be more important than ever as the nation grapples with an epidemic of childhood obesity and threats of food-borne illnesses like the avian flu. Potential threats to the food and water supply through bioterrorism is another significant worry.

Obesity is, by far, America's biggest problem in food politics, Nestle said. Curbing the amount of food people eat is an uphill battle because the food industry constantly pushes consumers to eat more, not less, she said.

"The deep dark secret of American agriculture (revealed only by agricultural economists behind closed doors)," Nestle writes, "is that there is far too much food available--3,900 calories per day for every man, woman and child in the country, whereas the average adult needs only a bit more than half that amount, and children much less."

As a result, the food industry--worth almost a trillion dollars annually--makes food more convenient (already washed, prepackaged spinach, for example), served in larger portions, easier to access and cheaper so that people will eat and buy more. In this regard, the food industry's goal of making profits can be diametrically opposed to a consumer's goal of being healthy, according to Nestle.

Visiting the San Francisco Bay Area to promote her new book and act as guest professor at the University of California, Berkeley, Nestle contends that if people want to protect the integrity of the food supply in the U.S. and abroad, they must get involved with the legislative process and "vote with their forks."

CONTINUED: An organic solution…
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8 comments

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Nestle: reliable voice of the nanny state
Nestle is an unreconstructed Naderite leftist. The reflexive answer
to all problems is "more government."
Posted by nicmart (1829 comments )
Reply Link Flag
No, not "more government"
but less corporations.
Posted by dysonl (151 comments )
Link Flag
It's like "groovy man"
Come on people. I hate to sound like the cynic, but how is this related to understanding technology. This is clearly "pro-flower power granola forcefeeding" propaganda. It's ridiculous. This is nonsense and a selling pitch to buy "organic foods".

Now, I do agree that our meal portions are way out of control. I've gone to restaurans and have had to take the rest of my meal home, which has fed me for two additional days. It's outrageous how much food we're expected to eat these days.

This is not a balanced article. It's a clearly an intentionally mistitled pro-organic foods article. Don't call it "Voting with a fork: The politics of food." It should've been called "Voting for organic foods: Our agenda."

Anyway, leave to San Franciscans to lead us straight onto the yellow brick road.
Posted by Dead Soulman (245 comments )
Reply Link Flag
Agreed...
This is politics, not technology. Reeks of elitism.

The big bad American food industry, so often criticized, has provided a better standard of living for more people than at any time in history. Many parts of the world *wish* they had the problem of "too many calories".

There wouldn't be a so-called epidemic of obesity in this country if people just exercised more self-control.
Posted by Betty Roper (121 comments )
Link Flag
discuss the merits of the subject, not the author
Ummm, I have no idea what political leaning the author has, nor do I care. What we should be discussing here is the merits of the subject at hand, not the personal beliefs or the political leanings of the author (unless they bias the evidence or the conclusion). What I take away from this article is that the food industry (and related) benefits from people consuming more food and they will do many things to get people to consume more food. Getting the message out so people understand this fact and that eating more is not necessarily healthy is a good thing. It's much like getting the message out that smoking is not good for your health. Once people understand these points and still choose to do things to damage their health anyway, then it's their fault, not the fault of the food and tobacco industries (within certain marketing behaviors, of course).
Posted by thanhvn (51 comments )
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A comeback is in order "Foriegner4" ; Organic Pro Talk:
Lend me your ears. Bottom line and further outcome to this woman's constituancy is to either IPO or increase grocery prices in the 99% consumer market beyond a current 29%-50% indexing. I began my produce industry career at a (-3%)-22% consumer index which closed out when the organic industry bewildered its first triple net lease.
The value of 'Organic Produce Shopping' is a cancer cure! No doubt the gal I am referring too is a zelot and should have been paid and not a free spot on the news in Phoenix Arizona. "no names"?
Posted by Pop4 (88 comments )
Reply Link Flag
Ignorant Bliss!
Dim wits that never even passed HS Biology much less a college level Biology or, god forbid, college Bio-Chem class rant on about things they have no more knowledge of then what they got from Fox news!

They dismiss all they do not understand, that is until their kid nearly dies from eating tainted food. Then it is all about why didn't the government do more to protect us!

Before you Rocket scientists blow this off you may want to have a talk with someone who actually understands the issue, say a college Biology of Bio-Chem teacher.

Those who know, have been complaining for years that the primary concern of the food industry is profit. Safety is secondary and only when it hits them in the wallet, is it a real issue.
Posted by Mister C (423 comments )
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Even before the 'Vegan' craze ABCO (formerly Alpha Beta 500-600) $vegiwash.
Do you wash your spinach? Well then, there are already USDA mandates on pestisides to maintane current yeilds in the produce industry. And plenty of (protobioteniques) to the .00001 for the beef industry. What? Now we use "Avian Flu" to invade every constituant that plants a crop using Canadian money in the north of South America. Come on California Organic growers and their Florida citrus partners even have New Jersey flanking the 'Vegan Food Piramid' on their "Farmer Market" brand of food products. Just Do it!
Posted by Pop4 (88 comments )
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