THE FOOD INDUSTRY IS RIGGED

By: DR. MARION NESTLE & MIGHTY PURSUIT

Dr. Marion Nestle is a molecular biologist, nutritionist, and public health advocate. She’s authored dozens of books, and many consider her to be the top food researcher in the world. In this episode of the Mighty Pursuit Podcast, we unpack the corruption in the food industry and how companies are creating products that cause chronic disease and early death. Mighty Pursuit: Well, thank you for being with us for today.  Dr. Marion Nestle: Pleasure to be here.  Mighty Pursuit: Yeah, we've been looking forward to this conversation for a while. Your work is incredible, just a pioneer with the food industry. I think it just paved the way for so many conversations happening for the next generation on what exactly is happening [and] what's being put in our food. And so, yeah, I'm just really excited. I wanted to kick this off by talking about processed food, because you can't really understand what's going on with the food industry and the corruption unless you understand why processed food is so bad for us. There's a doctor out in San Francisco, he wrote a book called Metabolical, and he called processed foods, "slow poison". So he wrote, "unlike salmonella, you won't be feeling the effects immediately, but eventually you'll feel it everywhere in your heart, muscles, bladder, brain, and especially your wallet." So I just wanted to kick it off by asking, can you kind of just give us a beginner's crash course into what processed food is and why it's bad for us?  Dr. Marion Nestle: Well, we never worried about processed food until very recently. Foods have always been processed. They've been preserved. That's processing. They've been transported, they've been salted, they've been sugared. They've been dried. All kinds of things are done. Cooked food is a form of processing. So it's not processing in general that you're concerned about. What you're concerned about is what is now called "ultra processing", which is a new term. It was a term invented in 2009. So that wasn't all that long ago, by a professor at the University of San Paolo in Brazil who defined categories of processing -- unprocessed foods, slightly processed foods, processed food ingredients, combinations of those, and then a specific category called the ultra processed. Which refers to foods that are industrially produced, designed to be irresistibly delicious, if not addictive and extremely palatable.  You can't make them in home kitchens because you don't have the equipment or the ingredients. So the classic example is corn. Corn on the cob is unprocessed. Canned corn is processed. You don't worry about those. What you worry about is Dorito chips, which you couldn't reproduce in your home kitchen because they're made industrially.  It's those foods which are now associated in vast numbers of study with poor health outcomes. Obesity, type two diabetes, heart disease, overall mortality, susceptibility to Covid 19, you name it. There are now more than a thousand studies that --  Mighty Pursuit: A thousand? Dr. Marion Nestle: More than a thousand that link ultra processed foods to poor health outcomes. And those are associations. So they don't say anything about causation. But there is one extremely well controlled clinical trial that demonstrates that ultra processed foods induce people to eat more calories and eat more food in general than they would if they were eating just processed foods. And that is an example of why these things are now considered addictive. Irresistibly delicious. You can't eat just one. The famous advertisement. You can't eat just one. That's what that's about.  Mighty Pursuit: So you mentioned the disease thing, which we're going to circle back on in a minute, but what percentage of the American diet is ultra processed?  Dr. Marion Nestle: Oh, 70%.  Mighty Pursuit: 70%?! Dr. Marion Nestle: Roughly. Somewhere between 50 and 70%. I mean, most people eat these foods. They're the most heavily advertised foods. They're the foods that are most profitable for their manufacturers. And when you're going up and down the supermarket aisles, looking at foods that are in packages, most of them are ultra processed.  Mighty Pursuit: I feel like when we go downstairs from our apartment in Harlem, and just go to the convenience store, it's like the entire store is basically what you're talking about. It feels like it just surrounds you, like, everywhere. Dr. Marion Nestle: Well, yeah, because they're easier to store. You can buy the ingredients when they're very inexpensive. Keep them on the shelf forever. And sell them when they're profitable. They're just enormously, enormously profitable. And they were formulated to be irresistibly delicious. And this is the work of Michael Moss, who's written a book called Salt, Sugar, Fat. Another one, I can't remember the title, but he's got two books demonstrating that once you start eating these things, you can't stop.  

WHAT'S BEING DONE TO OUR FOOD?

Mighty Pursuit: Yeah, yeah, it's a big thing. So, I think one big part of the conversation, I mean, for the average person, they think junk food. And I don't think they really internalize what's being done to their food. There are four categories I wanted to cover, and we could do it step-by-step, but the first one is food additives. So what are food additives?  Dr. Marion Nestle: Well, they're chemicals that are added to food. The usual ones are to preserve them, to make them taste better. So they're artificial flavors, artificial colors. Texturized just to give them a nice mouthfeel. One of the things that processing does is to take the taste and the texture out of foods. So you have to add enough back so that people will want to eat it. Food colors would be an example. People won't eat candy if it's gray. They want the candy to be bright red or black blue or bright green.  Mighty Pursuit: It's a psychological thing.  Dr. Marion Nestle: Or white. Mighty Pursuit: But a lot of these additives are banned in Europe and not the United States.  Dr. Marion Nestle: Some are. Yeah, I mean, the FDA doesn't do much with food additives. Big issue.  Mighty Pursuit: And so the second thing is pesticides. Can you unpack that for us?  Dr. Marion Nestle: Well, pesticides are used to grow crops and to grow plants in general to keep pests off of them. All foods have pesticides on them, even organic ones. Although, organic have much less and much less dangerous ones. But they're in the food supply. They're in everything.  Mighty Pursuit: And so there was this case in 2016 with Monsanto around pesticides. Are you familiar with it? What happened there?  Dr. Marion Nestle: Well, there have been several cases. Monsanto has been bought by the drug company Bayer in Germany. A very big mistake on Bayers' part. They've lost a lot of money over this. And there are now thousands of cases against Monsanto from people who use the herbicide Roundup -- glyphosate. And [they] say that they developed non-Hodgkin's lymphoma as a result. There have been some court cases that have ruled in the plaintiff's favor, and Monsanto had to pay big judgments. But now it's Bayer that has to pay the judgment. Bayer has tried to settle those cases with $12 billion. But there's so many cases that's not going to come close to covering it. Mighty Pursuit: And so the last two categories are like GMOs and growth hormones. Can you unpack those two? Dr. Marion Nestle: Well, GMOs are genetically modified foods. There's a very, very small list of what those are. If you go into a supermarket, you won't find in the produce section, you'll be very unlikely to find anything that's genetically modified. I can count them on the fingers of one hand. There's a pink pineapple. Mostly, they're not on the market. Wha the genetically modified foods are generally crops. Soybeans and corn that have been genetically modified to resist glyphosate pests in roundup or to resist insects. Those are in absolutely everything. And they're supposed to be labeled, and they are to some extent if you have a magnifying glass and are reading labels carefully.

BIG FOOD IS [KNOWINGLY] CAUSING DISEASE

Mighty Pursuit: So when it comes to the food industry -- are food companies fully aware of the products that they're creating?  Dr. Marion Nestle: Well, of course they are. But food companies are not social service agencies and they're not public health agencies. They're businesses with stockholders to please. That means that they have one goal and one goal only in today's investing environment, and that's to please their stockholders. You know, this is a way in which our investment system has behaved starting in the early 1980s, when the shareholder value movement came into prominence. And the sole purpose of corporations is not to protect their communities, not to make sure that their workers have enough money to buy their products. Their sole purpose is to make money for stockholders and a lot of the problems in our society result from that.  Mighty Pursuit: What seems particularly evil about the entire thing. I mean, there's a lot of parallels between, you know, and you've talked about this a little bit in your books, but Big Pharma and, and, you know, the Big Food companies and kind of like the whole playbook around all this, which we'll get into in a minute, which you documented in your books. I thought it was interesting when you published Food Politics, which covers the food industry in depth, you wrote in the intro that "I cannot find anyone who would speak to me on the record for this book". Why was that?  Dr. Marion Nestle: Well, that was because I was asking questions about corporate focuses, and nobody wanted to speak on the record. And be quoted as saying, well, "we don't really care about our workers, we don't care about our customers. We only care about profits to shareholders". Nobody wanted to say that. And in fact, I could only remember one instance where somebody said it publicly and it wasn't really a public statement. And this was at a conference at the White House on food marketing to children, where after the eloquent speeches about how companies should lay off marketing to children, a food industry executive said at a private meeting, "well, we wish we didn't have to market to children, and we think it's wrong, but our stockholders won't let us stop". And that was the boldest, most explicit statement I'd ever heard of that; had anybody say in a place where there were witnesses. So, no, nobody wants to talk about this, but it's the truth.  Mighty Pursuit: I can't believe they openly said that.  Dr. Marion Nestle: Well, it was a meeting where you weren't supposed to quote anyone.  Mighty Pursuit: Do you feel like food companies, just in general, kind of have blood on their hands when it comes to this stuff? Dr. Marion Nestle: I think they have blinders on. I mean, I've talked to people who work in food companies. They think they're doing good work. They're making products that people like. One of their arguments is we're not forcing people to eat our products. We're making products that people love to eat. And people do love to eat ultra processed foods. There's a reason for that. Michael Moss discussed that in his books. Mighty Pursuit: Makes you feel good.  Dr. Marion Nestle: They do focus group testing to make sure that the products reach -- they have a name for it – it's called the bliss point. It's the point at which you just don't want to stop eating the products because they taste so good and they feel so good on your teeth and in your mouth. So they're just producing products that people like. So from their standpoint, that's what they're doing. They're producing products that people like. Why would they want to do anything to stop people from buying them? Mighty Pursuit: Well, I guess the flipside would be if what you're creating is causing chronic disease and early death, then... Dr. Marion Nestle: Let's talk about the cigarette industry as an example -- of an industry that knew 50 years before there was really widespread opposition – 50 years! – that they were producing a product that caused lung cancer. Caused. Not associated. Caused lung cancer. And they did everything they could for the next 50 years to distract attention from the research, to cast doubt on the research, to cast doubt on the scientists and physicians who were arguing that cigarettes cause lung cancer. They lobbied. They did everything possible to keep people smoking cigarettes for the longest time possible. That's the playbook. And when cigarette companies bought food companies, they taught those food companies how to use the playbook.  There's now very good evidence for that teaching because they've got emails and they've got letters and they've got documents. I mean, a lot of these materials have come to light, and food companies learned the lesson very well. So if your product looks like it causes harm, the first thing you do is cast doubt on the research and then you hire your own research. Mighty Pursuit: The thing you mentioned earlier – we were just talking about this last night – the idea of choice is kind of funny to me because, again, you walk into the convenience store, you walk into the grocery store and this food surrounds you everywhere. Talk about slotting fees. It's just put into your face. On top of that, like you said, the test groups of how addictive it is and how it tastes. And then the marketing behind all of it as well. You know, you walk in Times Square and there's a giant bottle of Pepsi or something, like right in your face, on a billboard. Even the food coloring, like you said, it's a deeply psychological thing.

THE PLAYBOOK: EAT MORE

Mighty Pursuit: So let's talk about the playbook a little bit. One thing that you talked about in your books was the Eat More Agenda. So tell me about that. Dr. Marion Nestle: Well, if you're a food company, what do you want? You want people to buy your product. It's really simple. It's really simple. So you do everything possible to make sure that people want to buy your product and do buy your product, and that no government agency does anything that's going to make people question buying your product. That's your goal. Because you're interested in shareholder value. That's your purpose in life. And you have one single focus and that's it. And you put all your resources into it. You hire lobbyists to make sure that no government agency does anything that's going to interfere with that. I mean, it seems very straightforward to me, and any other expectation is unrealistic. I mean, you want food companies to not produce products that are unhealthy when they're making them $1 billion a year. That's unrealistic, if their goal is shareholder value. And their goal is shareholder value, that's what they're about. That's how the system works. So the system is rigged and the system is rigged against a food company trying to do something that will benefit public health or benefit the environment for that matter, which is why they do so much healthwashing and greenwashing.  Mighty Pursuit: What's interesting about the Eat More Agenda is I was watching a talk that you did with the Nobel Prize. You had this whole chart on there of the portion sizes and the amount of food we're actually consuming compared to 1950, just in a single setting, like a hamburger or something. Can you talk about that a little bit -- the portions?  Dr. Marion Nestle: We have to go back to 1980. So in 1980 a lot of things happened. President Reagan was elected on a deregulatory agenda. At that point, the food production system was enormously overproducing food. So between 1980 and 2000, in that 20 year period, the food supply went from providing 3200 calories a day per capita -- men, women, little tiny babies -- to 4000 calories per day per capita, which is roughly twice what the population needs on average.  Mighty Pursuit: That's crazy.  Dr. Marion Nestle: On average. So by the year 2000, we had twice as many calories as were needed by the population. And so in that 20 year period, food companies had to learn how to sell more food. And in order to do that, they created what I call an Eat More food environment. Food everywhere. I mean, when I first went to NYU, there were signs all over the library with books and cockroaches crawling over them saying, "don't bring food into the library. If you bring food into the library, you're going to ruin the books and we're going to expel you". Now there are two cafes in the library. Clothing stores. Bookstores. You couldn't bring a cup of coffee into a bookstore in 1980. You sure can now. There are cafes in every bookstore in America. So that's moving food into places where it had never been sold before. Then the food industry sponsored a lot of research to demonstrate that snacking was good for you and that, you know, really what you wanted to do was snack, not eat meals, when in fact, the research shows that the more times a day you eat, the more calories you take in.  Dr Marion Nestle: And then portion sizes got bigger. Companies were able to make larger portions because the cost of food was so cheap, because there was so much of it. Supply and demand. Twice as much food available. Therefore, the basic ingredients don't cost that much. Therefore, you can make bigger portions because your main costs are real estate and labor. And so large portions got introduced. And I remember when large muffins came in, I couldn't believe it. Muffins went from being 200 calories to 600 or 800 calories, and they didn't taste nearly as good because the surface to volume ratio changed and you had to put in a lot of baking powder in order to get them to rise. I didn't think they were very good, but people got used to them very quickly. They liked them. People liked larger portions. The size of bagels increased, the size of muffins increased, fast food portions increased. Everything got supersized.  Dr. Marion Nestle: And I had a doctoral student who documented when those products were introduced and how much larger products are now than they were in 1980. Well, if I had one concept to get across, it would be that larger portions have more calories. I can't even say it with a straight face because it seems so obvious, but it's not. It's not intuitively obvious. People have no idea how many calories are in foods, and they don't have a clue as to how many more calories there are in a larger portion. And we know this because this same doctoral student, Lisa Young, did an experiment in a class that she was teaching where she asked people how many calories were in an eight ounce sugar sweetened beverage and how many were in a 64 ounce sugar sweetened beverage. She didn't expect people to know how many calories were in an eight ounce Coke, but she certainly expected them to multiply by eight. And in fact, the average multiplier was three.  Dr. Marion Nestle: And so I said, "Lisa, go back to class, ask your class". I mean, even the most mathematically challenged NYU freshmen ought to be able to multiply by eight. And so she went back and asked her class, "how come?" And they said "800 calories in a soda is impossible". It's impossible that there could be that many calories in something I'm drinking, but it's not. You know, and so people didn't realize it. They started eating more. Guess what? They gained weight.  Mighty Pursuit: Yeah. I mean, the obesity rate right now, I think it's. 40%. 36%. 40%.  Dr. Marion Nestle: 42%  Mighty Pursuit: 42%?  Dr. Marion Nestle: 42% obese and 70% of American adults are overweight or obese.  Mighty Pursuit: Which is something like four times what it was.  Dr. Marion Nestle: Oh yeah, at least, it's become normal. Among children, it's 20% and that's becoming increasingly normalized.  Mighty Pursuit: We posted something today about how even the sugar content in one can of Pepsi is more than the daily recommended limit.  Dr. Marion Nestle: It's a little less. It depends how big the can is.  Mighty Pursuit: Yeah, well, the 12 ounce can.  Dr. Marion Nestle: It's a little bit less, but it's close.

THE PLAYBOOK: ILLUSION OF GREAT PRICES

Mighty Pursuit: Another aspect of the playbook I think is the illusion of great prices. Kind of like this idea of getting the biggest bang for your buck. But obviously cheap food comes at a cost. And so can you speak to that a little bit?  Dr. Marion Nestle: Well, yeah, I mean, one of the great ironies of the American food supply is that junk food is cheaper than healthy food. When people complain about healthy food being expensive it's because it is, relatively. So the Department of Commerce produces data on the increase in prices of foods of various categories over time. And their data show all prices have increased, with inflation. But the price of junk food has increased much, much less than the average price of food. And also much, much, much less than the price of fruits and vegetables and other healthy foods. So a lot of that has to do with government policies around foods where Big Agriculture gets the support and the result of that is that, the cost of junk food ingredients is very low. So companies can buy the ingredients at a very low price and charge a high price for it at the store.  Mighty Pursuit: Which is why, you know, this whole problem exists kind of in a nutshell. It's profitable.

THE PLAYBOOK: CREATE MASS CONFUSION

Mighty Pursuit: And then the other thing you talked about a lot is this idea of creating mass confusion, specifically in Unsavory Truth you talk about this a lot, but creating mass confusion around the data, around health. You said in Food Politics, "as a nutritionist, I cannot go anywhere without being asked why nutrition advice is so confusing". I think much of the audience probably listening right now resonates with that. So how exactly do food companies distort the studies around these subjects?  Dr. Marion Nestle: Well, all they have to do is cast doubt on the research. They can do that with research of their own. They can criticize the research that's been done. I mean, we saw this beautifully laid out with Coca-Cola, when Coca-Cola was caught. I don't think Coca-Cola's any different than any other food company, but it got caught and it got caught in a particularly embarrassing situation where a group called the Global Energy Balance Network was arguing that it didn't matter what you ate or drank, in terms of obesity, what mattered was how physically active you were. And they just didn't happen to mention that they were funded by Coca-Cola. But somebody found it out. And so there was a big scandal about that. And the resulting embarrassment was that a lot of correspondence between these researchers and Coca-Cola was obtained through the Freedom of Information Act. And the correspondence is very embarrassing because it showed that Coca-Cola had interfered and influenced and done everything possible to promote this idea and to work closely with these researchers. But I think lots of companies do this and Coca-Cola got caught. I think it's common practice that if a company can find a researcher who's willing to do a study that will be beneficial to the company, they'll buy that research.  Mighty Pursuit: Why would the researcher do that then?  Dr. Marion Nestle: Because they need research money to do their research. Universities expect researchers to get grants, and maybe they're not thinking that there's anything wrong with it. Or not realizing that anybody that you take money from is going to have an influence over the way you deal with that money, whether you recognize it or not. And mostly you don't. People don't recognize the influence of gifts in general. There's a lot of literature on that. And so, you know, they do this research. Coca-Cola funded an enormous amount of research to demonstrate that sugar sweetened beverages are harmless. Anybody who says that there's harm from sugar sweetened beverages is doing research that's so flawed, you don't have to pay any attention to it. Yeah, you know, that kind of thing.  Mighty Pursuit: So then the trickle down effect when it comes to the media and so like let's just say a study is done, and then a media outlet then picks it up and they're like, "oh sugar, added sugar, is harmless" or something like that.  Dr. Marion Nestle: Yeah, the media love stories like that. They just love it. Because, you know, stories now are about clicks. And the objective of any media publication is to get as many clicks as possible. That's how they get their money. The more clicks, the more money you get. So they're doing clickbait.  Mighty Pursuit: So then you get the kind of the whole mass confusion thing. What was really surprising to me about this entire process is like how nutrition professionals themselves are kind of caught up in this entire thing. You wrote in Food Politics, "food companies routinely provide information and funds to academic departments, research institutes and professional societies". And then in Unsavory Truth you also said that, "they provide for nutrition societies by helping pay for conference activities, publications", all that stuff. So taking me into that process a little bit.  Dr. Marion Nestle: Well, I go to meetings from my nutrition society, the American Society for Nutrition, and the meeting is sponsored by a whole great, big, long list of food companies who give money to the organization for it. The food companies sponsor specific sessions at the meetings on controversial issues. And you can bet that the people who speak at those sessions are only going to have one point of view. This is not going to be a session in which there's debate. There's going to be information disclosed about the benefits of that product. Every food company is doing that. Every food trade association. You know, if they can get dietitians to go on TikTok and say, this product is terrific, and I love this product, and there's nothing wrong with it, and the evidence that links this product to poor health is wrong and ridiculous, and you don't have to pay any attention to it. Then they're getting what they paid for.  Mighty Pursuit: It's crazy. One of the things that saddens me personally the most is, and you alluded to this earlier, but the targeting and the exploitation of children. There’s a playbook for children itself. And you've talked about this kind of thing extensively. Can you kind of speak on that subject with children?  Dr. Marion Nestle: Well, yeah, it's very important for food companies to market to children because children, even though they don't have any money of their own, or at least not for a while, they have what is called "pester ability". They can ask their parents or caretakers to buy the product for them. And I've talked to parents who tell me we never let our child watch commercials on television. We do not have anything about McDonald's in our house. When we drive down the street and our kid sees a McDonald's, they tell us that they want to eat there. And you know, I say to my three year old, how do you know you want to eat there? I want to eat there. And they get hysterical, if they don't stop. They have a meltdown. And you watch kids in supermarkets having meltdowns over products that are deliberately marketed to children. And remember, I already told you that the food industry executives said, "we wish we didn't have to market to children, but we do". Bcause they represent an enormous fraction of their income and sales of products. Food companies are in the business of marketing products. Their goal is to sell more and at the highest price possible. That's their goal.  Mighty Pursuit: One of the more insidious aspects is the kind of beloved cartoon characters that, like many of us, grew up with, like Lucky the Leprechaun or in the case of McDonald's, like Ronald McDonald. All of these could be interchangeable with Disney characters. And then even with McDonald's specifically, when I was growing up, they had like playpens in McDonald's. So it'd be like this entire kind of experience that kids were having.  Dr. Marion Nestle: Yeah, it was fun to go there. It wasn't about the food at all. It was about the toys and the Happy Meals and the playgrounds.  Mighty Pursuit: Another aspect with children are food dyes. A lot of the popular candy products, they all have Red 40, Blue 1, all of the stuff in it. It seems like the science behind food dyes specifically is kind of extensive.  Dr. Marion Nestle: There are countries in Europe that have banned these things. There's tremendous amounts of research questioning the safety of these things. The FDA has been very slow to act. And now states are starting to take this up. So there have been several states that are passing laws, saying that you can't sell products in the state that have these dyes in them. This will eventually force the FDA to act.

WHERE IS THE U.S. GOVERNMENT?

Mighty Pursuit: I mean, that's a good point. I think, you know, a lot of people might be sitting here wondering, like, how is this entire process, like legal? And so what is the role of the US government in this entire conversation? Dr. Marion Nestle: Well, I think the government has an enormous role, but in many cases it's been captured by food corporations, or other corporations. So they're afraid to act because they'll get sued. The FDA used to be, you know, there was a period when the FDA was going after inappropriate health claims on food products. But the companies sued the FDA.  Mighty Pursuit: For what?  Dr. Marion Nestle: On First Amendment grounds. And the courts ruled in favor of the plaintiffs and against the FDA. So the FDA gave up. So you have a system in which the courts are captured by corporations. The government is largely captured by corporations and it's so much trouble to fight them that nobody's willing to take it on.  Mighty Pursuit: Well, it seems relatively simple when it comes to something like the food additives or the food dyes. Like couldn't the U.S. government, federally, just ban it tomorrow?  Dr. Marion Nestle: Oh, sure. They could find some reason to do it. Sure.  Mighty Pursuit: And then the food companies would have to stop.  Dr. Marion Nestle: I mean, they'd have to go through the process, which is long and tedious. And the FDA's doing that to some extent. It's going to be forced to. If individual states refuse to sell products in their states that have certain dyes in them, the companies are going to have to stop using the dyes. Because how do you sell one product to one state and one product to another? You can't do that. So this will have a big effect. I think what's happening in the states is very useful.  Mighty Pursuit: So you feel like there's actually progress being made.  Dr. Marion Nestle: Yeah it's slow, but there's progress.  Mighty Pursuit: If Europe has taken these steps already to be done, how come this hasn't happened yet? If there's so much research.  Dr. Marion Nestle: Because food companies are lobbying and arguing that the research is inconclusive. The first thing you do in the playbook is you cast doubt on the research. That's always the first thing. And that's what they're doing. And it's very easy to cast doubt on research because research is seldom perfect or totally conclusive.  Mighty Pursuit: So I mean, you mentioned the word lobbying. Lobbying is obviously a big part of this equation. If people listening to this right now don't know what lobbying is, it's "to influence a politician or the government, and persuade them to support, or oppose a change in the law". You've talked about in your books, this weird dichotomy that's happening where you'll see instances where a high ranking member of the government will then go to a food company and work there and then vice-versa.  Dr. Marion Nestle: Well, that's the Revolving Door. That has its own name. That's when people from food companies go to work for the government, or people from the government go to work for food companies. There's a lot of that.  Mighty Pursuit: Which is an obvious conflict of interest.  Dr. Marion Nestle: Well you would think so. But you can understand why a food company would want to hire a former government official. Because that government official will tell them how to get through all the government regulations. It's very useful. And also they pay better.  Mighty Pursuit: So, how does lobbying practically work? Dr. Marion Nestle: Oh, you just provide information. You make an appointment to talk to the staff of a congressman or a congressional representative. And you bring information and you go in and you say, "we're very concerned about this issue because this issue is going to affect our company in certain ways. If this bill passes, we're going to have to get rid of 200 jobs in your community". That kind of thing.  Mighty Pursuit: And then there's, obviously the aspect of this, I guess the government's attempt at regulating food safety is this program called GRAS. What's the status of that today? And can you explain that?  Dr. Marion Nestle: It's very hard to explain because it has to do with food additive regulations. In 1958, Congress passed a law that divided food additives into two categories -- basically new ones and old ones. New ones had to go through an approval process. Old ones were considered to be generally recognized as safe because they'd been around for long.  Mighty Pursuit: Which is what GRAS stands for.  Dr. Marion Nestle: That's what it stands for. G.R.A.S. -- one s. Generally recognized as safe. So that would be salt or sugar or something like that would be generally recognized as safe. And that lasted until the 1970s when the FDA got busy with other things and didn't have enough time. There are thousands and thousands and thousands of food additives on the market. There are really lots of them. And you don't know what they are, and they're used in very small quantities. Most of them haven't been studied very well. So in the 1970s, the FDA changed its procedure and said that, instead of having to go through this big proposal of doing the research, the companies could do their own research and just let the FDA know about it. But they didn't have to let the FDA know about it. They could just do it voluntarily, and they could just say, "we think that the additive we're using is GRAS for human consumption". Then, the FDA would look at the letter that was written by the company and either say, "okay, we don't have any questions" or if for some reason whether it triggered a question, they would write back and say "mhm, better take another look at it". But in general, it's a very loose procedure. I think, pretty much widespread agreement that the FDA doesn't do enough to monitor food additives.  Mighty Pursuit: Well, they're chronically understaffed as well.  Dr. Marion Nestle: But they're understaffed for everything. And so the question you have to ask is where the food additives fit into everything else that the FDA is doing in the food area.  How important are food additives relative to food safety or some of the other or food labeling or some of the other things the FDA is doing, but they're certainly not doing enough about food additives. But that's a congressional problem, because Congress doesn't give the FDA enough money to do it.  Dr. Marion Nestle: This is another, you know, sort of thing, I'm always complaining about. Nobody else does. But this is my particular complaint is that the FDA gets its funding from congressional agriculture committees. And this is a historical anomaly left over from 1906, when the FDA was part of the USDA. So all its funding went through USDA funding committees. But now the FDA gets its funding from agriculture committees, not public health committees, even though the FDA is part of the public health service. And the public health service gets its funding through Health and Human Services, but not FDA.  Mighty Pursuit: So can you explain to me why that's a big issue?  Dr. Marion Nestle: Because why would agriculture committees be the slightest bit interested in the FDA? They don't like regulation anyway and they certainly don't care about the FDA. It's not their problem.  Mighty Pursuit: I mean, a lot of this seems like it's not really regulated well at all. Especially with what you were describing with GRAS, and if the food companies are really going to these great lengths to have this playbook, then to depend on them to kind of self-report... Dr. Marion Nestle: Yeah, that's ridiculous. I mean, that's absurd. And you know, the FDA has two areas where it really doesn't do much. It's food additives and dietary supplements. Dietary supplements they can't touch because there was a law passed in 1994 that essentially deregulated dietary supplements and kept the FDA out of it. And when the FDA tried to stay in it, that's when the courts ruled against them.  Mighty Pursuit: One of the things that I was researching is a lot of the food additives that were in use before the 1950s were kind of just grandfathered in as safe. And so there's relative uncertainty around that. And then you have the food additives that there's been studies around and there's like a known correlation between that and chronic disease. And so it just seems like obviously a huge risk to continue consuming the products.  Dr. Marion Nestle: I mean, I see food additives as a black hole.  Mighty Pursuit: Well, a lot of these things --- the food additives -- they're chemicals. But in a sense they're unnatural to the human body. They're being made in a lab.  Dr. Marion Nestle: Yeah, so avoid them. Read food labels and avoid them. And worry about how many calories you're eating.

TAKING BACK YOUR HEALTH

Mighty Pursuit: Yeah, I mean, so obviously, there's so many levels here with this conversation, I feel like it can be overwhelming for people of, you know, there's a playbook. There's an agenda. This food surrounds us everywhere. Like, what do I do? What would you say is the starting point to taking control of your health? Dr. Marion Nestle: Oh, I think diets are really simple. Really simple. Michael Pollan can do it in seven words. "Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants." If you do that, you don't have to worry about any of this stuff. Food being defined as foods that are processed or relatively unprocessed, but not ultra processed. That's the only thing that you have to do to modify. "Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants." That really takes care of it. And enjoy what you eat, I would throw in also, because it's one of life's greatest pleasures.  Mighty Pursuit: One of the bigger things that has been kind of more researched recently, has been this idea of the term "bio individuality" in the sense that, there's no one-size-fits-all diet.  Dr. Marion Nestle: Oh, you're talking about precision nutrition, the way the field is going these days.  Mighty Pursuit: So the idea that there's a lot of people who will swear by the fact that they went carnivore. And it does seem like they just got completely healed. Doesn't mean they like completely eliminated plants for their whole life, but they went carnivore, and it healed whatever gut issues that they were having. And then you have people that are swearing by the idea of going vegetarian, even Michael Pollan's quote, "mostly plants", and so what exactly is going on there?  Dr. Marion Nestle: Individual variation. Hard to know. Very difficult to know without studying it carefully. The nutrition field is moving in the direction of precision nutrition, where they're trying to identify individual biomarker levels and so forth.  Mighty Pursuit: You have a new chapter that is coming out in your book about organic. So does organic make a difference?  Dr. Marion Nestle: Yeah, it does, because you're not getting as heavy levels of pesticides. Organics is about production values. So the organic producers are producing foods in ways that are much better for the environment.  Mighty Pursuit: How so?  Dr. Marion Nestle: They're replenishing soil. They're not using fertilizers or harmful pesticides or as harmful pesticides. So that's good for the soil. It's good for the environment. Kinder to climate change.  Mighty Pursuit: You mentioned earlier, though, that all foods to some extent have pesticides on them.  Dr. Marion Nestle: Well, yeah, because they're everywhere. Absolutely everywhere.  Mighty Pursuit: So what does organic guarantee then?  Dr. Marion Nestle: That it doesn't have a specific list of harmful pesticides, they are excluded, and that it's produced in ways that follow the organic rules of the Department of Agriculture. Organic is codified in the United States.  Mighty Pursuit: Yeah and then obviously, I mean, when it comes to certain companies or products, I think a lot of the popular makers of junk food, obviously avoid those. And then the idea of just eating whole foods.  Dr. Marion Nestle: Yeah, not ultra processed. Whole or minimally or lightly processed foods. Right.  Mighty Pursuit: So the other aspect of this is kind of where to shop. And so let's talk about supermarkets. Whole Foods has -- we talked about earlier kind of the illusion of great prices obviously -- Whole Foods has this kind of catch phrase of like "whole food, whole paycheck" or something like that. So obviously they've been criticized for high prices. But one thing I admire about what they've done is that if you walk in the store, they've committed to banning 250+ ingredients from ever showing up in their store. So it seems like just by shopping there, you'd have a better health outcome.  Dr. Marion Nestle: Yeah, and they have a lot of organic food. I'll give them a lot of credit for that.  Mighty Pursuit: What would you say about those who can't afford to shop at all?  Dr. Marion Nestle: I see that as a political issue. I mean, there are reasons why the cost of ultra processed foods is so low relative to the cost of fruits and vegetables. That's something the government could get involved in.  Mighty Pursuit: That makes me think, I had some down here, about even what the government funds. So government incentives are being handed out. And so in 2021, there's about $28 billion being handed out to firms to grow like the five major crops - corn, soy, wheat, cotton and rice. And so all of those are common ingredients in junk food --  Dr. Marion Nestle: Ultra processed junk food.  Mighty Pursuit: But they handed out virtually no money to kind of smaller farms putting out --  Dr. Marion Nestle: Yeah those are considered specialty crops -- fruits and vegetables.  Mighty Pursuit: Are considered specialty...? Dr. Marion Nestle: Specialty crops.  Mighty Pursuit: Why is that?  Dr. Marion Nestle: Our food system is designed for industrial agriculture. And if you look, for example, at corn production, 45% of the corn that's produced in the United States goes to feed for animals. Another 45% goes to ethanol to fuel automobiles, leaving 10% or less of the corn that's produced for ingredients that go into processed food and corn that's consumed by people.  Mighty Pursuit: So obviously the government doesn't have to hand things out the way that they do.  Dr. Marion Nestle: No, absolutely not. Good luck changing it.  Mighty Pursuit: Yeah, I mean, you've talked about this idea of voting with your fork, but is there any way we can do anything from a regulation standpoint?  Dr. Marion Nestle: Elect officials who are more interested in public health and corporate health.  Mighty Pursuit: I don't see this issue, I mean, even when we think about the presidential election, it doesn't seem like it's talked about as much as other things in general.  Dr. Marion Nestle: Well, that's because people feel totally intimidated by the political system. They feel helpless in the face of it when there's so much corruption and corporations have totally taken over. You want to elect officials who care about the public and care about public issues. That would help a lot.  Mighty Pursuit: What about, parents of children and stuff like that?  Dr. Marion Nestle: The parents are fighting the whole food system on their own. That's a lot to ask parents. It's really hard. When a $1.5 trillion food system is aimed at getting their kid to demand products from their caretakers. And who wants to fight with their kids about food? I never did. I can't imagine that any parent wants a fight with their kids about food. It's really unpleasant that you have to do it three times a day. Or more. Nobody wants to do that. But once you understand that in fighting with your kid about food, what you're really fighting is a food system that has put this extraordinary amount of money, billions and billions of dollars a year, into trying to get your kid to demand products. It makes you want to fight back a little bit more.  Mighty Pursuit: Even in terms of conversations with kids and stuff like that, if you were a parent today, what would those conversations be for you?  Dr. Marion Nestle: Well, I didn't have to fight with my kids. [But] my kids are old. I didn't have to fight with them quite the way. I mean, we fought about cereal. They remind me that we fought about cereal. I refused to buy junky cereals. Now you just -- I think kids are smart -- you just explain what the situation is. They're trying to get you to buy this. Let's look at this ad together. Let's teach kids media literacy. Let's watch this advertisement. What is this advertisement trying to do? What are they trying to tell you?  Mighty Pursuit: That's really good.  Dr. Marion Nestle: Well, how do you feel about that? I can tell you how I feel about that. You know, you talk to your kids about it.  Mighty Pursuit: That's really good. Yeah, I think just even having this conversation, I think the idea of awareness around this. I think a lot of people live in oblivion in terms of, like what's actually happening around them with food and the food system. So I think it's empowering in a sense, just to have the information and to spread the information, which obviously you've done such a beautiful job over the past.  Dr. Marion Nestle: That's why I write books. And one of them is a cartoon book, so it's really easy to read.  Mighty Pursuit: I think to end on a personal note, you're a testament to good health. You seem like you're very vibrant even at 87, going around doing stuff.  Dr. Marion Nestle: Doddering away.  Mighty Pursuit:  I assume that you've practiced all these principles yourself your whole life. Dr. Marion Nestle: I think they're very easy to follow. I really do. I mean, because it's not that hard to do once you get the hang of it.  And I don't buy a lot of junk food. Do I buy junk food ever? Of course I do. I have my likes. And none of these things are totally prescriptive. It's just what your general basic habits are. And if you're generally eating healthfully and you're eating real food and you're not eating too much and you make sure that you got fruits and vegetables, you don't have to worry about any of that other stuff. It takes care of itself.  Mighty Pursuit: I think that provides a lot of hope for people, especially when it comes to early death, chronic disease, all this stuff and the attitude that, like that's just going to happen to you as you get older. And so it's certainly inspiring for me to sit in front of you and see that.  Dr. Marion Nestle: I think you don't want to gain weight. You really don't. And I know that's a big controversial issue now. But I see avoiding weight gain as part of fighting a $1.5 trillion food system that's trying to get you to gain as much weight as possible, because the more you weigh, the more you have to eat.  Mighty Pursuit: I think the science in that regard is pretty well [established]. I mean, even if you look at the science of fasting and stuff like that, the body for periods of time when it has no food, and then just eating less in general. Even if you think about for most of human history, for thousands and thousands and thousands of years, like we're living in a moment of food scarcity, and so it's literally impossible for you to overeat for most of human history, you're going hunting for food. But now it's, like, so unnatural to eat just copious amounts of food, and the human body isn't even, like, designed to -- Dr. Marion Nestle: Doesn't handle it very well.  Mighty Pursuit: Yeah, it doesn't handle it well.  Dr. Marion Nestle: It doesn't handle it well, but we have a food system that's designed deliberately for purposes of profit to get people to eat as much as possible and that's a concept that I think it would be useful for people to understand. Because then it makes decision making much easier. That it's not your decision, it's your in this system that is rigged. It's rigged.

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