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A nutrition expert aims a critical eye at the research and marketing practices of food companies

Unsavory Truth: How Food Companies Skew the Science of What We Eat

Marion Nestle
Basic Books
2018
320 pp.
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Nutrition expert Marion Nestle wasn’t expecting her name to come up in the Democratic Party emails leaked by anonymous hackers during the 2016 presidential campaign. Yet that is exactly what happened. A Clinton campaign adviser, it turns out, was also consulting for Coca-Cola, and the leaked emails included a message from an Australian public relations agency advising the company to keep a watchful eye on Nestle and any concerning statements she might issue.

It turns out that Nestle is perfectly capable of returning the favor. In her latest book, Unsavory Truth, Nestle levels a withering fusillade of criticism against food and beverage companies that use questionable science and marketing to push their own agendas about what should end up on our dinner tables.

In her comprehensive review of companies’ nutrition research practices, Nestle (whose name is pronounced “Nes-sul” and who is not affiliated with the Swiss food company) reveals a passion for all things food, combined with pronounced disdain for the systematic way food companies influence the scientists and research behind the contents of our pantries. Her book is an autopsy of modern food science and advertising, pulling the sheet back on scores of suspect practices, as well as a chronicle of Nestle’s own brushes with food company courtship.

Is it shocking that many food companies do whatever they can in the name of fatter profits? Maybe, but it’s old hat for Nestle, who has spent five decades honing her expertise and is a leading scholar in the field of nutrition science. In this book, she details nearly every questionable food company tactic in the playbook, from companies that fund their own food science research centers and funnel media attention to nondietary explanations for obesity, to those that cherry-pick data or fund professional conferences as a plea for tacit approval.

Even companies that hawk “benign” foods such as blueberries, pomegranate juice, and nuts come under the author’s strict scrutiny because, as she reminds readers, “Foods are not drugs. To ask whether one single food has special health benefits defies common sense.”

Instead, Nestle urges eaters to look behind the claims to discover who funds food-science studies, influences governmental regulations, advises policy-makers, and potentially compromises researchers. Food fads, we learn, can spring from a few findings lifted out of context or interpreted with willful optimism. Companies, after all, can hold different standards for conducting and interpreting research than those of independent academic institutions or scientific organizations and can be driven by much different motives.

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Even the health benefits of seemingly
benign foods such as fruits, nuts, and seeds
are frequently exaggerated.

Nestle wields a particularly sharp pen against junk-food purveyors, soda companies, and others who work hard to portray excess sugar as innocuous or who downplay the adverse effects their products can have. These companies adopt tactics such as founding research centers favorable to their bottom line, diverting consumer attention away from diet to focus instead on the role of exercise in health, or trying to win over individual researchers to favorably represent their products. Nestle calls foul on these attempts to portray junk foods as relatively harmless, even knocking the “health halo” shine from dark chocolates and other candies masquerading as responsible health foods.

Not content to point to the many thorny problems lurking behind food company labels and glitzy sponsored meetings, however, Nestle offers a constructive set of suggestions for how nutrition scientists can navigate potential conflicts of interest.

Consumers, too, bear a responsibility for promoting eating habits that steer clear of dubious advertising. Nestle advocates adhering to a few simple guidelines: “[E]at your veggies, choose relatively unprocessed foods, keep junk foods to a minimum, and watch out for excessive calories.” We have the power of our votes and our forks, she reminds us, and can use both to insist that food companies help us eat well. Nestle’s determination to go to bat for public health shines through, illuminating even her occasional sections of workaday prose or dense details.

Nestle marshals a convincing number of observations on modern food research practices while energetically delineating how food companies’ clout can threaten the integrity of the research performed on their products. There is indeed something rotten in the state of dietary science, but books like this show us that we consumers also hold a great deal of power.

About the author

The reviewer is at Peraton, Herndon, VA 20170, USA.