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On Contact: Is it food? NYU’s Marion Nestle

Host Chris Hedges talks to Marion Nestle, New York University professor of nutrition, on how food companies distort the science and research into what we eat. In her book ‘Unsavory Truth: How Food Companies Skew The Science Of What We Eat’, Nestle explains that the food industry follows the formula pioneered by the tobacco industry – cast doubt on the science, fund research to provide desired results, offer gifts and consulting arrangements to buy silence or loyalty, use front groups, promote self-regulation and personal responsibility, and use the courts to challenge critics and dismantle regulations.

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CH: Welcome to On Contact.  Today, we discuss how food companies distort the science and research into what we eat.

MN: I wish you wouldn't use bought off, if I can interrupt. 

CH: Okay.  You can…

MN: I just…

CH: That's my word.  You can use yours.

MN: Yeah, I think that's too strong because one of the things I discovered in the research for doing this book was that the people who receive the money don't perceive themselves as being bought off.  They didn't intend to be bought off.  They absolutely do not believe that the money has any influence on their science.

CH: Right.  If you will--corporations routinely corrupt science to mask the harmful effects of their products or business practices.  They invest millions of dollars to counter legitimate science and health concerns, buying off organizations, universities, and nonprofits to mislead the public and protect their profits.  The drug industry, the tobacco industry, and the fossil fuel industry, have all mounted fierce propaganda campaigns that, in essence, are built around buying off the professionals tasked with providing research and guidelines for our health and a healthy environment.  One of the major purveyors of this distortion in corruption of research and science is the food industry.  It follows the formula pioneered by the tobacco industry, cast doubt on the science, fund research to provide desired results, offer gifts and consulting arrangements to buy silence or loyalty, use front groups, promote self-regulation and personal responsibility, and use the courts to challenge critics and dismantle regulations.  Joining me to discuss the food industry is Marion Nestle, author of "Unsavory Truth, How Food Companies Skew the Science of What We Eat."  Let's begin, as you do, with your book with--I thought this was fascinating, with the Podesta Emails.  So you're reading--and you're on it.  You're in it.

MN: What on earth did the Podesta Emails, the hacked emails, have to do with food politics?  I got calls or emails from two different people saying, "Marion, you are in the Podesta Emails."  How is this possible?  I didn't have anything to do with Hillary Clinton's campaign.  And yet there I was and it turned out that an advisor to Hillary Clinton, someone who was traveling with her or a woman named Capricia Marshall…

CH: Who is making $7,000 a month from Coca-Cola.

MN: From Coca-Cola as…

CH: While she's working for Hillary Clinton.

MN: While she's working for Hillary.  They picked up her emails and she was consulting for Coca-Cola and this entire collection of emails between her and a vice president at Coca-Cola got picked up and there I am in them.

CH: And what did they expose?

MN: Well, I had been a visiting scholar at the University of Sydney in Australia working with a group on conflict of interest.  And I gave a talk to the Australian Nutrition Society.  Somebody came up and said, "You know there's somebody from Coca-Cola in the audience?"  I said, "Of course there is."  I had just published a book called "Soda Politics."  So, I assumed that there was somebody from Coca-Cola in every talk I gave.  Never thought about it.  In the emails were notes she had taken on my talk and…

CH: Which you said were pretty accurate?

MN: Absolutely - plus.  And the--and recommendations that my activities in Australia be monitored and also the activities of the woman in whose group I was working.

CH: Now why?  What is this--this is just a window into this multi-billion dollar campaign by the food industry.  I think somewhere in the book you talk about Coca-Cola is basically water and sugar, right?  I mean it's…

MN: Oh, yeah.  That's--Soda Politics was about that.

CH: Right.  But what are they doing?  And they're doing it quite effectively.  And Coke plays a pretty prominent role throughout your book in terms of food industry but why were there--why were they there and what do they do?

MN: Well, Coca-Cola got caught.  The--I think they don't do anything different than any other food company.  They just happened to have been picked up in the Podesta Emails and also picked up in an enormous cache of emails that was forwarded by the New York Times.

CH: But explain what they do.  What do they do?

MN: Well, they follow the tobacco industry playbook.  Like all food companies, they follow the tobacco industry playbook, which you read off at the beginning.  The first thing is always to cast doubt on the science, to cast aspersions on the scientists who are opposing you, and to make sure that you don't believe any of the science that might link your product to ill health.  They do other things behind the scenes.  They lobby, they fund front groups, they do all these things.

CH: But I think it's fascinating they follow a nutritionist like you around to events.  I mean, you're being monitored.

MN: I was astonished.  I didn't think I was nearly that important.  I mean, really, truly.  And, you know, and this is in remote areas of the world from the United States.  And the--and the idea that the interference with the activities of critics would be at this minute a level.  Never entered my mind, but that, of course, was what the tobacco industry did.

CH: One of the most distressing things in your book is how group after group, researchers after researchers, universities are so--this money is so pervasive and they're so bought off.  I mean, I think at one point you talk about how…

MN: I wish you wouldn't use bought off, if I can interrupt.

CH: Okay.  You can…

MN: I just…

CH: That's my word.  You can use yours.

MN: Yeah, I think that's too strong because one of the things I discovered in the research for doing this book was that the people who receive the money don't perceive themselves as being bought off.  They didn't intend to be bought off.  They absolutely do not believe that the money has any influence on their science.

CH: Right.  But you also point out…

MN: But there is…

CH: …in the book that the research is kind of preordained in terms of, you know, that they set up research projects that are in almost all cases going to buttress or support what the industry that is funding it wants.

MN: Oh, yeah.  I mean, these are the letters that I get that say we're looking for proposals, for studies that will demonstrate the benefits of our…

CH: Well, there you go.  There you go.

MN: The benefits of our product.  And there's a big difference between studies aimed at proving benefits and studies aimed at finding out the truth, if that word still exists.

CH: You write about, with a kind of assault on education in terms of funding, you write in today's research environment, you say, "Their appointment, promotion, tenure, and career advancement absolutely depend on their winning grants, publishing in prestigious journals, and achieving national and international recognition for their research.  Universities expect faculty to obtain grants to pay for research supplies, equipment, and the salaries of technicians, graduate students, and post-doctoral fellows.  Increasingly, faculty are also expected to raise part of their own salaries.  As a nutrition professor at a large state university explained to me, her institution typically pays only 10% to 40% of salaries and expects faculty to generate the rest from grants.  She insists the faculty members would not ask the food companies for funding if they didn't have to."  And this is her, "It's a high pressure system, it's not getting any better and with the current administration's cuts to science funding and increasingly--increasing power to the industry."  So with the evisceration of independent research universities, the funds, and to carry out--this problem is only getting worse because where are you going to go for the money?

MN: Uh-hmm.  Yeah, at the moment, the food industry doesn't fund most nutrition research.  It funds a small fraction but that fraction will certainly increase as government funding gets harder and harder to get.

CH: Well, it does, as you point out in the book, fund a lot of organizations that deal with nutrition.

MN: Yes.  And then there are the organizations and…

CH: Right.  So maybe you can talk a little bit about how it was…

MN: Well, that's also a problem because the nutritional organizations like holding meetings at nice hotels.  They like giving swag.  They like having dinners.  The do…

CH: And Coke likes paying for it.

MN: And Cokes like--likes paying for it.  And if you're a food company, you want the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics and the American Society of Nutrition and the Society of Nutrition Education and all of these nutrition societies to not object to your products.

CH: Well, you talk about…

MN: And guess what?  They don't.

CH: Yeah.  And you talk about how they actually, in the midst of these conferences, will fund and set up their own seminars.  And it's very difficult to distinguish what is that corporate-created faux seminar and the real one.

MN: Yeah, I go to these seminars and the company that pays for them usually provides lunch or meals or something like that.  And the speakers all, in one way or another, are promoting the benefits of the sponsor's products.  They don't bring in speakers who have contrary views, so it's not a debate.  And these sometimes look like regular sessions.  So, I think it's a huge problem.

CH: You--I mean the money is staggering.  You're talking about the--at one point, Coca-Cola kick-starts this group, the GEBN?

MN: The Global Energy Balance Network.

CH: With a $20,000,000 endowment yielding an annual budget of $1,000,000 a year.  What was that?  It doesn't exist anymore, right?

MN: Well, it doesn't exist anymore.

CH: Right.  But it's all right.  It's okay.  It's typical.

MN: Well, it's a very interesting case.  It doesn't exist anymore because the New York Times exposed this.

CH: Right.  Was that fat planted or that series…

MN: No, it was before…

CH: It was before, okay.

MN: It was before that.  Yeah.  In 2015, the New York Times had an enormous article.  It filled up a whole page of the--of an inside page of the New York Times, exposing Coca-Cola's funding of a group called the Global Energy Balance Network, which were university researchers who are arguing that it didn't matter what you ate or drank.  What only mattered in obesity was physical activity and not even that much.  If you were a little bit more active, you didn't have to worry about eating or drinking anything with unstated message.  You didn't have to worry about Coca-Cola, but they didn't disclose it first that they were funded by Coca-Cola and the New York Times revealed that.  And that was just a huge scandal.  Coca-Cola was extremely embarrassed and changed its practices afterwards to some extent.

CH: Was there any remorse on the part of these academics?

MN: I didn't see any.  And in fact, some of the people involved in the Global Energy Balance Network won prizes at the next meeting at the American Society for Nutrition.

CH: Right.  You're right about that.

MN: Oh.  No.  And the lack of remorse, I think, is part of what I was mentioning before is that the people who receive this money don't recognize its influence despite an enormous body of literature that links gifts to favorable responses.  And the basic observation about this research is that industry-funded research comes out with results favorable to the sponsors' interest.

CH: Right.  You talk about Fred--is it Stare from Harvard?

MN: Oh, yes.  That goes way back.

CH: Harvard's Department of Nutrition as a food industry apologist.

MN: Well…

CH: Well, that's Harvard.

MN: Those weren't--those weren't my terms.

CH: I know.  It's in quotes.

MN: That's a quote.  Yeah.  I mean, he raised an enormous amount of money from the food industry.  And the press knew that anytime they needed anybody to speak for the food industry, he was the person to call.

CH: Right.  So I want to talk about two aspects.  One--I got to read this thing about Froot Loops because it's hilarious.  So--but you have junk.  I mean stuff that's bad for you, but they sell it as nutritionally advantageous.  So "Froot Loops," which you write, "a kid's cereal providing 44% of its calories from sugar, mounts a campaign that says for your health, Froot Loops."  They have the little box you check because it's nutritionally good for you.  "It reported that Michael Jacobson, CSPI's Executive Director."  CSPI is what again?  The…

MN: Center for Science in the Public Interest.

CH: Right.  "Had resigned from the Smart Choices," Smart Choices are the checkbox for eating healthy food including Froot Loops, "in disgust because it was paid for by industry and when industry put down its foot and said this is what we're going to do and that was it, end of story.  You could," in his words, "start out with sawdust, add calcium or Vitamin A, and meet the criteria."  He also quoted Aileen Kennedy, President of the Smart Choice Board and Dean of the Nutrition School at Tufts University, "You have a choice between a doughnut and a cereal.  So Froot Loops is a better choice."  This quickly got translated to Froot Loops being, "better than a doughnut."  Or as the economists put it, "It's practically spinach."

MN: You can't make this stuff up.  Isn't this fun?  I just love it.

CH: Okay.  We're going to come back.  When we come back, we'll continue our conversation about the food industry with Professor emeritus Marion Nestle.  Welcome back to On Contact.  We continue our conversation about the food industry with Professor Marion Nestle.  So, before we go into another, I have to bring up, which is in the book, Kraft Singles.

MN: Oh, dear.

CH: Which are "cheese" because it's not cheese.  It's, as you write, "Pasteurized prepared cheese products with a list of ingredients," that one reporter said "Read like a novel.  So--but I mean it's funny but it's not because the--you know, these corporations and the foundation you read, they--they're selling "cheese" slices as a way for children to get more vitamin D and calcium.

MN: And calcium.  As this was a scandal that I wrote about with the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, which put its logo on these cheese slices as part of a campaign to identify healthier-for-you food choices, and the members of the society were so upset about it that they had to stop all that.

CH: Well, it's only when they get caught though, ain't it?

MN: Yes.  And the getting caught part, I mean that, again, there were reporters who were involved in that.  Thank heavens for the pre--for the free press.

CH: Well, the--sometimes I feel like a blacksmith.

MN: No.

CH: I'm just gonna talk about--so this is--you go through lists of who are the sponsoring entities of these nutritional organizations.  And the list is quite a stagger.  I mean, Mars, for instance is a big one.  Coca Cola, we already spoke about.  But they are, you know, major donors for the very industries that are supposed to be monitoring them.

MN: Monitoring them and making recommendations about which products are good to eat, and that puts these societies in a terrible conflict of interest which some members of the society recognize, but I think most don't.

CH: You write about the Journal of the American Heart Association, that they "Published the results of a clinical trial concluding that incorporating dark chocolate and almonds in your diet may--" this is from them, "may reduce your risk of coronary heart disease."  So who paid for that study?

MN: That--was that was a Mars study?

CH: No, that was Hershey.

MN: Or what was a Hershey's study?

CH: That was the Hershey Company and the Almond Board of California were the funders.

MN: Money well spent, I'd say.

CH: They also paid seven of the nine authors for their participation and the other two were employees of the funders.

MN: Yeah.  So this is basically paid advertising and the…

CH: But you're--but you're appropriating the credibility of these organizations to sell?

MN: Oh, absolutely.  Absolutely.  And the individuals who are involved will argue that the money had no effect on their opinion.

CH: I know.  That's throughout the book, but I think that's willful blindness.  I…

MN: The research shows that it's unconscious.

CH: Well…

MN: I prefer to be generous to my colleagues.

CH: I don't know.  Read Robert Jay Lifton's "The Nazi Doctors" who also used that excuse.

MN: Yes.

CH: So, I want to talk about an aspect that you raised in the book, which I thought was very interesting.  That as people at least are vaguely aware that in many cases, they are being poisoned or their health is being damaged by many of these products, you have a huge marketing campaign not only to tout its non-existent nutritional benefits like Froot Loops, but to market food products, as you write, as drugs.  Explain what that is, like pomegranate juice and stuff.

MN: Yeah, superfoods.

CH: Super foods, right.

MN: Super foods, foods that will cure any problem that ails you, foods that will address the particular problem that ails you.

CH: And chocolate was sold that way.

MN: Yeah.  Chocolate was sold that way, although Mars says it's no longer doing that.  Now it sells supplements.  But…

CH: Sell--in pills, you wrote.

MN: In pills.  In pills.  But the makers of almost--you know, all fruits and vegetables have antioxidants.  All fruits and vegetables have vitamins and minerals.  They're all healthy for you.  And I'm greatly in favor of promoting consumption of fruits and vegetables but not individual ones over other individual ones.  Why would you choose pomegranates rather than apples or kiwi fruit or some other kinds of things.

CH: Well, because the advertising campaign, as you point out in the book, was very effective and their--what--did their profits triple or something?

MN: Oh, yeah.  They were extraordinary effect--extraordinary effective.  Advertising campaign to mark--market palm juice as something that would help you prevent erectile problems and…

CH: Right.  There you go.  Alzheimer's, right?  Or something, right?

MN: Alzheimer's and cheat death.  All you have to do--all you have to do to live forever is drink pomegranate juice.  Yeah, I'd drink it too.  But the research that backs that up tends to be industry-funded research with predictable results.

CH: Let's talk about high-fructose corn syrup.

MN: Oh, yes.  Sugars.

CH: But explain what it is because you had a very good explanation of it.

MN: It--it's sugars made from corn, glucose and fructose.  In that sense, biochemically, it's exactly the same as table sugar, except the glucose and fructose are separated and table sugar, you have to split them in your body.  But they're basically sugars no different from any other kind of sugar.  And yet the corn refiners, who are the people responsible for high-fructose corn syrup, are at war with the Sugar Association, the trade association for cane and beet growers.  So it's fun to watch those boy--those boys.

CH: And what--explain what that war is.

MN: Well, that war is over which one of them is better for you.  I think they're not…

CH: Well, neither one?

MN: Yeah.  No, I think everybody would be healthier eating less of both, but I got caught up in the corn refiners marketing campaign because they quoted me as saying that there was no difference between corn syrup and sugar, they're both sugars.

CH: Well, you have--didn't they have lawyers send you a letter--their attorneys sent you letters, was that right or…

MN: No, that--no, that was the Sugar Association that sent letters because I said that soft drinks contain sugars and water and nothing else.  And they said that I, as a nutritionist, should know better.  Soft drinks contain corn sweeteners.  Okay.  And their lawyer would be dealing with me, but, I don't know, I was defaming sugar.  Yeah.  I mean, this is all about market share.  All of this is about market share.  We produce 4,000 calories a day per capita in this country.  Most people can barely eat half of that.  That means they've got to market hard to get you to buy their food instead of somebody else's.

CH: Candy generated $35,000,000,000 in retail sales in 2017, two-thirds from chocolate and they were funding studies that concluded that eating candy has no effect on the weight or health of children.

MN: And furthermore, children who eat candy have healthier diets than those who don't.

CH: Right.  Oh, yes, that's right.

MN: Those are industry-funded studies, a classic example.

CH: And how effective were the studies?  I mean how…

MN: Well, the studies are probably conducted all right.  The science in them is probably fine.  That's not the problem.  The problem is the way the research question is framed and how the results are interpreted.  And in this particular case, the group that did the research is a group that works for food companies and does studies for food companies, I think these are marketing studies and they should go in journals of marketing.  They shouldn't be in scientific journals.

CH: But they are.

MN: But they are in scientific journals.

CH: And then they're picked up by the media.

MN: Always.

CH: Well, the…

MN: Always picked up by the media.

CH: You know, Mars, which I didn't know, is a huge player here.  I mean they will then pump this stuff out.

MN: Right.  Mars has actually backed off from quite a bit of this kind of thing because the--it's a privately held company.  And the younger generation is a little bit more sensitive to the health issues.  They're behaving better these days.

CH: Let's talk about…

MN: Somewhat.

CH: Beef, pork, lamb, processed meats.

MN: Yeah.  The research on processed meats says that they're probable cause of cancer, of some kinds of cancer.

CH: And heart disease.

MN: And heart disease.  And the meat industry would prefer that you not believe that, and funds research to cast doubt on those kinds of questions.  Again, as part of the normal course of doing business, this is what they all do.

CH: So, where do we go to get good information?

MN: Oh, from me, of course.

CH: Well, no--that's true actually.

MN: So--but I think people have to be skeptical.  And, you know, if you see studies that say this food is a superfood, this is a breakthrough, everything you thought you knew about nutrition is wrong, you need to be skeptical when you hear any of those things and think, yes, it's a fruit or a vegetable I should be eating lots of fruits and vegetables.  The key to healthful diets is to eat a largely plant-based diet and these will contribute to it, but not one more than another.  Eat the fruits you like, eat the nuts you like, eat the grains you like, they're all good for you.  They don't need to be marketed as superfoods.

CH: Where do you think the food industry is going?

MN: Well, as long as it has to sell its products in a food environment and--that contains 4,000 calories a day per capita, men, women, little tiny babies, it's going to be doing everything it possibly can to sell food products.  And I see the pressure on research increasing because researchers need money, the food industry needs marketing research.  They're going to continue to fund these things to the extent that they can get away with it.  And that's why I hope that there will be more press monitoring of this sort of thing, more press attention to the predictability of the studies that are funded by food companies.  And to the game that I like to play, which is guess the sponsor when I see a study…

CH: But it's often hidden, the sponsors.

MN: Well, it's sometimes hidden.  Most journals require disclosure of sponsorship.  And to some extent, that happens.

CH: Sure.  And by the time it hits the media, it's…

MN: By the time it hits the media, I hope that the reporters will stop--start paying more attention to who sponsored the study when the results sound like some company had a vested interest in the outcome.

CH: You have the American Society for Nutrition, their sustaining partners in 2018, Mars, Monsanto, Nestle, Pepsi, Coca-Cola, Sugar Association, should these people be allowed to sponsor the American Society for Nutrition?

MN: Well, in our society I don't know who would stop them.  But I would think that the society would rethink its sponsorship, and actually this particular society has a committee that's been working on it for several years.  Their report has yet to come out, but I'm certainly looking forward to reading it.

CH: Well, it--yeah I think, as you point out over and over, these people in the end go for the money.

MN: They think they need it and they do.  But I think there's a larger point which is they don't think that the money influences them.  And I think this is incorrect.

CH: Of course it is.  Thanks.  That was Professor Marion Nestle, author of "Unsavory Truth, How Food Company Skew the Science of What We Eat."

MN: Great.

CH: Thank you very much.

MN: Thank you.