Food Politics: Building institutions that regulate choice

Book: Food politics: How the food industry influences nutrition and health

Author: Marion Nestle

The book was motivated by the contradictions between nutrition policy and practice. The author argues that the basic nutrition advice has remained more or less constant for the last fifty years. She examines the role of food industry in the US in creating an environment conductive to over eating and poor nutritional practice. From an ID Perspective, this book offers a fascinating picture on formation of policies and laws regulating the food industry; I’ll have more to say on this below.

Overproduction, Competition & pressure to make people eat more

The book argues that in the early 1900s there was a lot of under nutrition in the US, and it was in the interest of people, USDA and the food industry to increase consumption. This has changed over time, and now good nutrition advice essentially involves ‘eat less’ messages, especially of certain foods. This goes against the interest of the food industry, which is overproducing. Foods high in fat (meats, diary, fried foods, grain dishes with added fat) sugar (soft drinks, juice drinks, desserts) salt (snack foods) are the ones that are most promoted since these are the most profitable foods in the food industry (Nestle 2002: 10).

In the context of overproduction companies compete hard for the market, but at the same time, they try to expand the market on the whole by making people consume more – which is against the nutritional interest of most people in the United States today. Apart from making foods tasty, convenient, and available at a low price, companies also take other measures to enhance sales. These include confusing nutritional advice, serving larger portions, etc. (Nestle 2002). Further, some groups, including, minorities are specially targeted and a lot of marketing addresses children.

Confounding nutrition education

One tactic that is growing is to supplement food with vitamins, calcium, etc. and highlight them rather than undesirable aspects of food such as fat, calorie content. Nestle predicts a horse race by food manufacturers to fortify every food on the shelves. She quotes Gilbert Leville, “the addition of nutrients, just so that they may be listed on the label, is not a sound nutritional philosophy” (Nestle 2002: 305). Efforts are regularly made to confound the nature of food, and the basic principles of nutrition as well. In doing this they often solicit and get the support of USDA and FDA.

Food Politics discusses at length the efforts by food industry to influence food policies and advice from various governmental bodies. The discussion includes many case studies and an outline of tactics used by the food industry to influence policies. For example, an elaborate effort was bid to subvert the food pyramid diagram that clearly indicates that less must be taken of foods on the top of the pyramid. Instead, the “food pyramid” was depicted in the confusing shape of a food bowl. Similarly the food industry fought and got the permission to make health claims of foods, many of which are not tenable. They successfully lobbied to include these claims in lables without processes specified by FDA for drug companies.

Social Environment of Food Choice

By looking at the ‘social environment of food choice’ and the ‘food politics’ associated with it, Marion Nestle clearly argues that food choice is not merely a matter of ‘individual preferences’. It is something that is determined, at least in part, by society and culture. The ‘politics of food’ attempts to influence this preference in accordance to the agenda of different players. The major player in this is the corporate sector, whose agenda is at times congruent with that of the consumer, and at times conflicting. If food choice were to be excessively influenced by corporate sector, it will lead to choices that are profitable to the industry, but are unhealthy. Public action is crucial to counterbalance this influence of food choice, and it will help in putting together those concerns of people that do not necessarily contribute positively to the bottom-line of corporations.

Relevance to understanding institutions

Food politics deals with the shaping of institutions and in the process deals raises interesting questions. She looks at the role of lobbies, ‘experts’, political fundraising, industry influence in government staffing, role of advertisements, labelling, public relations and other forms of ‘information management’, etc. All these relate constructing institutions and the social environment of food choice. There is an extensive discussion of knowledge (e.g. understanding of nutrition and food choice) in shaping regulation – and how various players influence knowledge/information itself with a view to shaping institutions. She also deals with how notions of morality have an influence on institutions and on the competition to construct morality. Should advertising to children be regulated? What should be served in a school mean and should soft drinks vendors be allowed in the cafes in schools? Should academics disclose information about their sponsors – and does sponsorship affect academic output? In all, this book offers a wholesome picture on the evolution of institutions that is invaluable.

About Vivek Srinivasan

I work with the Program on Liberation Technology at Stanford University. Before this, I worked with the Right to Food Campaign and other rights based campaigns in India. To learn more, click here.

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