The unpalatable truth about your favourite foods

Marion Nestle has been fighting food industry giants for decades. Now she wants to expose the way they skew scientific research for their own gain

 Photographed for New Scientist by Martin Adolfsson

Photographed for New Scientist by Martin Adolfsson

 
 

 

I HAVE been in the US for less than 24 hours when, against my better judgement, I decide to indulge in a food trend I have heard about from the other side of the pond: ice cream so low in calories that the marketing message encourages you to eat the whole tub in one go.

For an ice cream addict, the promise was irresistible. Still, I know bingeing on any junk food – however low in calories – is unwise, and when I arrive at New York University to meet with Marion Nestle a few days later, I am unsure whether to mention my transgression. After all, as the doyenne of nutritional science, she has spent much of her career taking on the food industry and its unhealthy messages.

Trained in microbiology, Nestle was working at Brandeis University in Massachusetts when she was handed a nutrition class to teach. That was in the 1970s, and so little was known about nutrition that each textbook she consulted had a different list of nutritional requirements for the human body.

She quickly fell in love with teaching such a poorly understood subject because, she says, the research was so weak that her students had to think critically. “I thought it would be a wonderful way to teach biology. And it was.”

Nestle went on to become a policy adviser for the US department of health, where the connection between food and politics became increasingly apparent to her – if not to others. “Most people think of the food industry as an industry that brings us things we like to eat. And there were companies that are iconic and represent America, and I don’t think anybody really thought about it.”

That changed when obesity began to loom large over the US population. “By the late 1990s I was really tired of going to meetings on obesity and have everybody blame childhood obesity on the parents,” she says. Around the same time, she was inspired by a talk on the behavioural causes of cancer. It focused on cigarette advertising that targeted young people – something that had been considered a normal part of the landscape. “I had never seen it presented as it was at this conference,” she recalls. “Slide after slide of cigarette advertisements clearly directed at children. And I walked out of that meeting thinking: we ought to do this for Coca-Cola.”