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Vegetarian Reading

Vegetarian Books

Each issue the VIP birds endeavor to soar to the highest literary peak to peck out the most unique, informative, and accomplished book that contributes to vegetarian enlightenment.

This month we review a book that reveals how the powerful food industry has had a detrimental effect on our government's nutritional policies and has affected the public's eating choices and health.

Food Politics:
How the Food Industry Influences Nutrition and Health

By Marion Nestle

University of California Press, 2002


Food and politics appear to be an unlikely pairing, but they are hopelessly entwined like Tweedledum and Tweedledee, the twins in Alice in Wonderland. In Food Politics author Marion Nestle could have subtitled the work How the Food Industry Has Subverted Nutrition and Health. Throughout her well-researched work Nestle reveals how the people's representatives in Congress have been influenced by the food industry to create a climate where regulatory agencies are rendered ineffectual to prevent harm to the people.

Nestle, a professor and chairperson of the Department of Nutrition and Food Studies at New York University, has had an opportunity to see how the food industry influences government agencies when she served as a nutrition policy advisor to the Department of Health and Human Services. She has also served on nutrition and science advisory committees to the Department of Agriculture and the Food and Drug Administration.

Food Politics When Nestle was hired by the Public Health Service in 1986, her task was to manage the editorial production of the first Surgeon General's Report on Nutrition and Health. The report was supposed to summarize research on the relationship of fat, saturated fat, cholesterol, salt, sugar, and alcohol to chronic diseases.

"My first day on the job, I was given the rules: No matter what the research indicated, the report could not recommend "eat less meat" as a way to reduce intake of saturated fat, nor could it suggest restrictions on intake of any other category of food," she writes. "In the industry-friendly climate of the Reagan administration, 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."

When the report was finally issued in 1988, it had no eat less statements but instead was loaded with euphemisms like "eat less saturated fat" and "choose a diet moderate in sugar."

In her chapter on Politics Versus Science, Nestle details how the Eating Right Pyramid was almost scuttled by the meat and dairy groups who objected to their position in the pyramid. After 11 years of work and the involvement of leading nutrition experts, Secretary of Agriculture Edward R. Madigan yielded to the pressure of the meat and dairy interests and killed the Pyramid just as it was slated for publication. The press took up the cause and wrote many stories about the demise. The USDA began to receive numerous letters of protest from organizations like the American Medical Association, the American Cancer Society, and the Center for Science in the Public Interest.

One year after the project was scuttled, the Food Guide Pyramid was resurrected and released in 1992. That year cost the taxpayers $855, 000 for additional research. The title had been changed because of complaints by Kraft Foods that Eating Right was the title of their line of prepared foods. Conagra objected to the title because it gave Kraft a sales advantage. The change designed to placate food producers was to set the servings in bold face and move them outside of the pyramid. This move suggested that the recommended diet include at least 2 to 3 servings of meat and dairy daily.

The Pyramid evolved out of the USDA's role of providing dietary advice to the public. The agency's other role, that of ensuring a sufficient and reliable food supply often conflicts with the dietary advice. This conflict of interests is revealed in the chart showing the ten leading causes of death in 1900 and 2000. In 1900 the four leading causes were tuberculosis (11.3%), pneumonia (10.2%), diarrheal diseases (8.1%), and heart disease (8.0%). Other causes of death in 1900 were liver disease (5.2%), injuries (5.1%), stroke (4.5%), cancer (3.7%), bronchitis (2.6%), and diphtheria (2.3%).

By 2000 the causes of death were quite different. Heart disease and cancer deaths jumped dramatically. The four leading causes of death were heart disease (31.4%), cancer (23.3%), stroke (6.9%), and lung disease (4.7%). Other causes were accidents (4.1%), pneumonia and influenza (3.7%), diabetes (2.7%), suicide (1.3%), kidney diseases (1.0%), and liver disease and cirrhosis (1.0%).

Nestle explains that in 1900 dietary deficiencies and malnutrition were quite prevalent among the poor and were factors in infectious diseases like tuberculosis and diphtheria. By 2000 the diseases were not from dietary deficiencies but instead resulted from dietary excess. People were eating too much. By 2000 nutritionists and dietary gurus were telling people to eat less and live longer. This advice was contrary to the views of the food companies who wanted everyone to eat more. They accomplish this goal by making the foods inexpensive, and convenient, and tasty by emphasizing sugar, fat, and salt. Just as important is to keep the public nutritionally confused by funding single nutrient studies to show their product is part of a healthy diet.

Nestle reveals how the dietary supplement companies, a small part of the food industry, have convinced the public and Congress that their products do not need to be regulated like foods and drugs. She focuses on the Dietary Supplement Health and Education Act (DSHEA) of 1994 that she says, "DSHEA gave the industry everything it wanted and then some; it deregulated dietary supplements and undermined the FDA's regulatory authority over supplements and conventional foods as well." Following the enactment of this law, consumers could never be certain that the information they were reading on labels is accurate.

Unlike drug companies that have to prove their products are safe, supplement manufacturers are not held to the same standards. DSHEA gave the responsibility of proving the products were unsafe to the FDA who would need to prove the danger before the products could be removed from the marketplace. The removal could only be accomplished after the FDA received approval from four levels of bureaucracy. The cumbersome process led to few removals.

Both supplement manufacturers and food companies achieved another victory in 1997 with the FDA Modification Act (FDAMA). Provisions in the law said that the FDA had to authorize nutrient-content and health claims for foods if those claims were supported by an authoritative statement currently in effect published by a U.S. government scientific body or the National Academy of Sciences. If the FDA did not respond in 120 days, the manufacturers' claims would automatically prevail. During that four-month period the FDA would have to issue a regulation prohibiting the use of the product or file a lawsuit.

Any attempts by the FDA to regulate supplements by holding them to the same scientific standards that were applied to pharmaceuticals were interpreted by the supplement industry as attempts to change the intent of DSHEA. Court decisions have said that not permitting companies to make health claims because there was no significant scientific support would be a violation of the First Amendment that guarantees freedom of speech.

Marion Nestle The relaxed regulations resulted in a boom and boon for both the food and supplement manufacturers who unleashed an array of products that claimed all kinds of health benefits. New categories of nutritionally enhanced foods were conceived: functional foods, designer foods, nutraceuticals, and techno-foods. All of these events lead Nestle to ask two important questions:

  1. Is it not in the public interest to demand that there be some federal system to guarantee that all those products on the shelf are safe and effective?
  2. Shouldn't there be some regulatory framework to control patently absurd or misleading claims?

Nestle also reveals how the food industry has exploited children by targeting them with television advertising for non-nutritious foods. The industry has invaded the schools with soft drink machines and even fast food items. She cites statistics showing that by 1997 30% of high schools were selling fast foods from nine different chains. One high school, operating as a franchise of a major fast food company, makes a profit of approximately $100,000 annually.

As consumers, we are all like Alice in Wonderland tumbling down this giant hole stuffed with a myriad of unhealthful creations the food industry wants us to purchase. As Marion Nestle suggests in Food Politics, we need to "vote with our forks." We need to be willing to pay more for our food, give up out-of-season produce, and avoid buying packaged foods and anything advertised on television. Unless people take these measures, they are endorsing the status quo of the food system. She draws some interesting parallels between the food industry and the tobacco industry. Both groups argue that citizens should make decisions without government interference or regulation. Both are promoting products that are harmful to health. Both use advertising, public relations, philanthropy, experts, political funding, lobbying, intimidation, and lawsuits to protect sales.

Fortunately we have writers like Nestle who can help guide us through the blizzard of advertising and erroneous information. Unfortunately, not enough people are exposed to the extensive information that has been carefully documented in this volume. As consumers we need to shun junk food and thus lessen demand and hurt sales. We also need to become more aware of the industry attempts to capture votes in Congress and push their agendas. By becoming more vocal and working to elect people who are more responsive, we elect representatives who will enact tough measures to protect citizens from unsafe food, supplements, and medications. We also need to separate Tweedledum and Tweedledee by removing politics from the food arena.

As the author stresses throughout Food Politics, food manufacturers want us to eat more, and we need to eat less.

Reviewed February 2003

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