“I found it thrilling that no less than the First Lady of the United States had become interested in my kind of public health issues,” Nestle writes of her initial jubilation. “Others, who believe that the government should stay out of matters involving personal dietary choices, were less delighted, putting obesity in the same controversial category as climate change.”
The problem with FLOTUS’s plan, which is the same thing New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg encountered when he attempted to clamp down on oversized sugary beverages, Nestle says, is that normally law-abiding citizens naturally rebel when elected officials wade into legislating their waistlines.
“Many citizens believe that as long as their personal decisions do not directly harm others, the government should not interfere in what they choose to eat — even if those choices eventually make them ill and generate health care costs that must be borne by society,” Nestle writes.
She points out, however, that Uncle Sam routinely spoon-feeds the public all kinds of food cues — whether they realize it or not.
“Federal policies support the current food environment, for example, by subsidizing the ingredients in processed foods, permitting corporations to deduct the cost of marketing from taxes as business expenses, and allowing junk foods to be marketed during children’s television programs,” she argues.
The most obvious example, she notes, happened just a few years ago.
Nestle chides President George W. Bush for replacing the portion-specific food pyramid adopted in the 1990s with a rainbow-hued graphic stripped of easily decipherable food standards, while promoting increased movement in lieu of disciplined consumption.
“In 2005, the Bush-era [Department of Agriculture] released a new version of the pyramid cleansed of its ‘eat less’ messages. ... Why would the USDA produce something so difficult to understand? Years of food industry lobbying had convinced USDA officials that nutritional judgments were controversial and good for neither business nor the USDA’s mission to promote American agricultural products,” she says.
Of course, what’s done is done. And it makes more sense to worry about the future than the past.
The pressing issues on Nestle’s personal radar include genetically modified organisms and biotech-led foodstuffs. “Critics of the technology and how it is used argue that the main benefits of GMOs do not accrue to the public, but instead are created for the benefit of biotechnology corporations,” she warns.
The dead giveaway?
“Instead of focusing on the food needs of the developing world, food biotechnology companies engage almost exclusively in research on first-world agriculture: genetically modified corn, soybeans, and cotton bioengineered to resist weed killers made by those very same corporations.”
Still, for all the bellyaching, Nestle seems optimistic that at least some people refuse to swallow the pabulum the agro-industrial complex is dishing out.
“Today’s food movement is expressed through advocacy for farmers’ markets, local, seasonal, and sustainably produced food, and through resistance to corporate control of the food supply,” she says.
“Eat Drink Vote: An Illustrated Guide to Food Politics” by Marion Nestle and The Cartoonist Group, Rodale Inc., 224 pages, $18.99.