Marion Nestle on Unstoppable with Kara GoldinMarion Nestle joins me on today’s episode of Unstoppable. Marion is an author and Paulette Goddard Professor of Nutrition, Food Studies and Public Health Emerita at NYU.

You might have heard of some of her incredible award winning books like Food Politics: How the Food Industry Influences Nutrition and Health, Safe Food: The Politics of Food Safety, Soda Politics: Taking on Big Soda (and Winning), and most recently, Unsavory Truth: How Food Companies Skew the Science of What We Eat.

Marion’s research and writings have examined a lot of the scientific and socioeconomic influences on food choices, obesity, and food safety.

On today’s episode we talk about health, food politics, research funding and biases, plus much more.

But before we dive into this episode, a huge CONGRATULATIONS to our five lucky winners of Season 2’s Hint Water contest. Congratulations to Brooke Craven, Samantha Levine, Sadiegirl101, HoneybeeMD, and This is Tech Today. All winners please email [email protected] with your iTunes username and shipping details to claim your years supply of Hint Water. And thank you to everyone who took the time to enter and leave a meaningful review for the show on iTunes.

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“The effects of the funding generally are unconscious. The people who receive the funding don’t realize that it effects them. They don’t recognize the effect. They don’t intend to be bought or intend to be corrupted.” – Marion Nestle

Show Notes:

  • What are food politics
  • How research is funded
  • Why emotions get in the way of evidence
  • How unconscious biases influence food studies
  • The issues with research funding
  • The similarities between food studies and drug studies

“I could only find 11 studies that looked at the effects of food industry funding (the first one was in 2003, the last one was this year), in contrast to literally thousands of studies that have been done on drug industry funding. But to me, it looks about the same.” – Marion Nestle

Links Mentioned:

Facebook | Twitter | Food Politics

“Food is one of life’s greatest pleasures and people should be enjoying it and eating what they love. It makes me really sad that people are in such pain and it makes me angry with the food industry for deliberately confusing people.” – Marion Nestle

Transcript:

Kara Goldin: Hi everybody it’s Kara and we’re here on Unstoppable today and I get to interview somebody who I’ve had tons of admiration for for many, many years, Marion Nestle.

Marion, for those of you who are not familiar with her, she’s based out of New York but she actually has spent a lot of time in Berkeley as well. She is currently just came out with her latest book called Unsavory Truth: How Food Companies Skew the Science of What We Eat. Very, very excited to hear more about that. I had first learned of Marion years ago when I read one of her books, The Food Politics: How the Food Industry Influences Nutrition and Health. For those of you who’ve heard me talk about this, it’s been a passion and somewhat scary fascination of mine to understand how we, as consumers, really skewed by really what we’re reading and what we’re learning and sometimes we don’t really learn those things. So I think Marion was probably one of the first people to turn me onto some of that information.

But just a little bit more about her. She has been at New York University. She retired in September of 2017 and has done a number of different things including holding degrees from Transylvania University in Kentucky, Macaulay Honors College of the City of New York. But then she went onto do lots of amazing, amazing things on both coasts. She also was the editor of the 1988 Surgeon General’s report on nutrition and health which I think is super interesting on a lot of counts.

But her research and writings have just examined a lot of the scientific and socioeconomic influences on food choices, obesity and food safety and just want to welcome Marion to the podcast. Super excited.

Marion Nestle: Oh glad to be here.

Kara Goldin: Super, super excited. So just to get started. I’m just going to jump right in with the books. So The Unsavory Truth, I have to be honest with you. I’ve read most of what you have written. It is sitting on my bookshelf and I’m going to read it before the end of the year for sure because I’m so excited about it and I know I’m going to get super consumed.

But what made you go ahead and write about this topic?

Marion Nestle: Well the book is about food industry funding of nutrition research. It grew right out of my last book which was Soda Politics: Taking on Big Soda (and Winning). While Soda Politics was in preparation, I started running across examples of Coca-Cola’s funding of research. Coca-Cola was interested in producing research that demonstrated that sugar sweetened beverages don’t have any impact on health. That any information to the contrary is wrong. That really what’s more important for your health is physical activity. They were funding these studies and I wrote about them in Soda Politics.

They made me notice that lots of studies were being funded by food companies.  In March of 2015, I began collecting them. Whenever I ran across a study with a title that made me think, “Who would ever do a study like that? Who funded that?”, and I can give you lots of examples.  One came in today. If you eat nuts, your semen count is higher.

Kara Goldin: Crazy.  

Marion Nestle: I thought, “Who paid for that?”. The Nut Council of course.  

So I was running across these things. I started posting them on my blog, foodpolitics.com. I did it for a year. At the end of a year, I had 168 studies that were funded by food companies and 156 of them came out with results that favored the sponsors interest, even though I begged readers to send me examples of food industry funded studies with negative results. So that was one big reasons.

The second reason for doing this book was that nobody knew anything about this. Again in 2015, while Soda Politics was at the printer, The New York Times came out with a report on a group called the Global Energy Balance Network. These were scientists who were arguing that physical activity was more important than what you eat or drink in your body [inaudible]. These investigators neglected to mention that Coca-Cola was funding them. Big surprise.

So The New York Times did this big article about them and I was quoted in it. I got called by a lot of reporters. The reporters were shocked. They were shocked that Coca-Cola would fund something like this. They were shocked that researchers would accept industry funding and they were shocked that universities would allow their faculty to do this. I thought, “Holy smoke. If reporters are amazed by this, then I’ve got another book to right”.

Kara Goldin: What year was this? That you found [crosstalk].

Marion Nestle: This was 2015. That article in The New York Times came out in 2015.

Kara Goldin: Interesting. I’ve been, over the last couple of months, on a totally different topic. We have a full time lobbyist that’s helping us work on some stuff around school lunch programs to actually allow water or a product like Hint to actually be allowed in school lunches. We’ve run up against the dairy association because they actually wrote the rules for what would actually be in school lunches and the orange juice association. Anyway, I’ve been really, really interested in how people are so surprised by all the power of these large, not just the large lobbying groups.

But then we also ran into some interesting conversations. I’ve really heard over the last couple of years that there’s these large soda companies that have funded studies but then I’ve also ran into pharmaceutical companies that are funding studies as well. Claiming that they are interested in funding a study, for example, around Type II Diabetes. Then when they don’t like the results, then the end of report comment is the results were inconclusive. Yet they do not have to actually apparently talk about what those results were because they funded the studies. Which I, as a consumer, just think is completely crazy.

Anyway, maybe it’s your next book.

Marion Nestle: I actually wrote a lot about, I have a chapter on the drug industry in this book.

Kara Goldin: Oh interesting.

Marion Nestle: Because there’s very little research on food industry funding of nutrition research. But there’s an enormous amount of research on drug industry funding of physicians that demonstrates that the funding changes physicians prescription practices and also their opinions on advisory committees. That research goes back 60 years at least. There are libraries full of books about the influence of drug influence funding. There’s literally thousands of research articles about drug industry funding and how even a small gift affect physician’s prescription practices.

I reviewed that literature and very briefly it showed that this research shows that funded studies come out in favor of the company’s branded drug. Even if the drug isn’t as effective as generics and even if it’s more expense then generics, that larger funding has a greater effect than smaller funding. Big gifts have bigger effects than small gifts. But even small gifts like a pen and a prescription pad or a meal that costs as little as $13 has been shown, in studies, to demonstrate that physicians will switch their prescription practices.

The other thing that that research shows that’s so interesting to me is that the effects of the funding generally are unconscious. The people who receive the funding don’t realize that it affects them. They don’t recognize the effect, they didn’t intend to be bought or intend to be corrupted. They deny that it has any effect on them. I was interested to see that those same kinds of things are showing up in the very preliminary studies that have been done on food industry funding. I could only find 11 studies that looked at the effects of food industry funding. The first one was in 2003. The last one was this year. In contrast to the literally thousands of studies that have been on drug industry funding. But to me it looks about the same.

Kara Goldin: What I thought was just so interesting is that when they can’t actually skew the results to be in their favor, then they don’t actually have to release the results. They can actually say that it’s inconclusive.

Marion Nestle: Oh that only occurs. I’ve not been able to find any evidence for anything like that with food industry funded research. It may exist but I certainly can’t find evidence for it. There’s plenty of evidence for drug company’s working that way.

Kara Goldin: Yeah and that’s what I meant. Drug industry.

Marion Nestle: What I see more commonly with food industry funded studies is a disclosure statement that most scientific nutritional journals require their authors to say who paid for the study and whether they have any financial ties to the funder of the study. In those disclosure statements, you commonly see that the funder had no influence on the design, conduct or publication of the study. There are example where that’s not true. Here again, Coca-Cola comes up because there’ve been so many investigations of Coca-Cola’s funding that involve Freedom of Information Act requests for emails that demonstrate very close association between Coca-Cola and the researchers who were doing this study.

But then there was a recent example of the alcohol industry where the alcohol industry funded a big study at NIH. That study was suppose to be about whether one drink a day had any effect on heart disease risk. When The New York Times wrote about it, the reporter got a tip from somebody in NIH that there was a lot of collusion between the NIH investigators and the alcohol industry funders. That essentially the NIH had promised the industry funders that the study would demonstrate that one drink a day reduced heart disease risk and they weren’t going to run the trial long enough to show any harm to breast cancer, for example, or anything else. That was so shocking to the overall NIH administration that they stopped the trial as soon as they found out about it.

Kara Goldin: On so many levels, I just can’t understand how humans can sign up for this. I just don’t understand how you can be an individual working inside of the NIA or the CDC or whatever it is and see that this stuff is happening and just decide to just go along with it.

Marion Nestle: Let’s give people the benefit of the doubt for the most part and say that they really are unconscious of the influence. What I hear all the time from people who take food industry funding is that it has no effect on what they do. All of the evidence that’s available points to an opposite conclusion. It has an enormous effect. It’s just that people don’t realize it or don’t want to realize it. Or I suppose there are people who just want the money, but I think they’re few and far between.

Kara Goldin: Interesting.

Marion Nestle: I don’t know.

Kara Goldin: They just don’t connect the dots, yeah.

Marion Nestle: It’s really a question of ethics and what kind of ethics you were trained in. I was trained in molecular biology, that’s what my degree is in. We just had beaten into us that you had to constantly control for your unconscious biases. The assumption was that you had unconscious biases and that you wanted study’s to go out a certain way. The entire efforts to make you do quality research were aimed at getting us to control for things that we were unconscious of. I mean, that sounds crazy but that was my training.

Kara Goldin: Interesting.

So today on your blog you talk about the, speaking of alcohol, the beer helps to improve Alzheimer’s. I’d love to just have you share.

Marion Nestle: That’s my current favorite study.

Kara Goldin: Yes. Yes and I am a beer drinker so I appreciate that.

Marion Nestle: I’m sorry?

Kara Goldin: I am a beer drinker so I do appreciate the comments.

Marion Nestle: Oh aren’t you happy to know that it’ll prevent Alzheimer’s?

Kara Goldin: I know. It’s just crazy.

Marion Nestle: And who funded the study? When I saw the title of that study that hops improved cognitive functioning, I think it was in rats or mice I can’t remember which. But the clear implication was that if you drank beer it would help you prevent the symptoms of Alzheimer’s. My first questions was who paid for this? Who would ever do a study like that?

Kara Goldin: And who did?

Marion Nestle: Only a beer company. Kirin Beer. They were Japanese investigators so you can guess it was a Japanese beer company and it was.

Kara Goldin: Interesting. Very, very interesting.

So moving on to some more serious health stuff. So the World Health Organization report for Europe recently published a report on marketing junk food for kids. In the U.S. we see that junk foods are always still actively pushed in marketing, whether it’s Doritos having the best Super Bowl commercial or Kim Kardashian eating a Carl’s Jr. Burger. What’s your take on what needs to change with how brands market these junk foods?  

Marion Nestle: Well I don’t think that marketing to children is appropriate at all for anything. Children are not in any place whatsoever to know the difference between what’s being sold to them and real information. They can’t distinguish it. Some adults can’t either as far as that goes. But certainly children can’t. I don’t think that marketing to them should be allowed. It’s just that we live in a society where every time there have been any attempts, and there have been many, to try to restrict marketing to children it’s been stopped by the industry that are affected. They go right to Congress and Congress says, “Keep hands off”. I don’t see any signs of that changing. We live in a country in which corporations call the shots and this is one of those examples.

Kara Goldin: I mean I’m a big believer. So we started a drink that has no sweeteners in it, almost 14 years ago now. The number of people that I ran into when we were first starting hint who said, “Oh it’s kind of like Vitamin Water”, and I said, “No it’s not Vitamin Water at all”. Vitamin Water at that point had more sugar in it than a can of Coke. It was amazing, as I started to talk to people like buyers as well as just people who had been drinking Vitamin Water. The number of people who actually thought that they were getting their daily recommend dose of vitamins in a bottle because it said the word vitamins was unbelievable.  

The number of people who are drinking products like Smartwater, for example. I bet there’s people out there who really do believe that they’re going to be smarter by drinking a product like that. People can laugh about that but I really, really think that these words. For me, I was drinking diet soda for years and I thought that was actually going to market me skinny by drinking diet. I’d be curious to hear what your thoughts on that are. Do you think that that will ever be changed? Will we actually try and curb those words from actually being in the allowable vocabulary for products?

Marion Nestle: Well first of all we’re human and we’re very susceptible to this kind of marketing. Food company’s know that if they market foods as healthy with vitamins, or any of these other things that are on the food packages these days, that people won’t think about it very much. They’ll just reach for those packages. Everybody wants to do things that are good for their health. Marketing of food is not suppose to hit you in your higher intellectual functions. It’s suppose to hit you emotionally and slip below any kind of conscious, critical thinking. So we just respond to these things. There’s something in the way that the human mind is hardwired that just responds to this.

Now, the company’s argue that they have freedom of speech on their side and they can say whatever they want. To date, they’ve been supported by the courts, by Congress, by everybody else. We don’t live in a society where there’s a lot of public approval for government intervention. Most government interventions on public health issues have encountered enormous popular and industry resistance and it’s only when the evidence is really incontrovertible that they’re able to get something through and then everybody gets used to it and it’s okay. I could think of seat belts or fluoridated water still being argued about. But any of these public health measure, they were always fought. They’re still being fought.

Even though evidence that backs them up is enormous and we would be a much healthier society. We certainly be a much healthier society if everybody vaccinated their kids. These are things where we’re not talking about evidence, we’re talking about emotion and peoples feelings about what they think is right. So I don’t think you can make evidence based arguments about these kinds of things.  

Kara Goldin: It’s an interesting topic. Last week I was in many conversations with all of the stuff going on at Facebook. We run ads on Facebook, for example, and I know lots of other eCommerce company’s that run ads on Facebook. So the question that somebody was mentioning to me, it’s Facebook has taken a position and they’re getting in some trouble for this. Where they’re reading copy and deciding that there’s certain copy that they don’t actually want to allow to run.  But yet if you are a company that knows a trademark for a brand like Diet Coke or Diet Pepsi or whatever, they allow that to run. My argument and a lot of other people who are in a position to run these ads is saying it’s actually worse if you’ve got a brand like that that is embedded in someones mind versus actually the stuff that is getting kicked out in some of these ads and some of the stuff that Facebook is getting in trouble for.

So anyway, I think it’s an interesting time in history and I do believe it will ultimately start to bubble up to not just ethics but also what is allowed at this point. I think branding will be questioned, maybe not in the next month. But I think in the next year because I think that when you’ve got company’s that are basically hanging their hat on a brand that you ask 10 people in the room, “Is that healthy for you? Is that better for you?”.

I think you wrote an article at one point, I believe it was you, a blog about things that are popped. Most consumers today think that if things are popped, they’re better for you. Yet there’s a lot of studies that show that that stuff is not necessarily the healthiest stuff for you either. Microwave popcorn, for example, is not necessarily better for you.

Anyway it’s a fascinating time in history because I think consumers are getting smarter and smarter or trying to get smarter and smarter. But it’s hard. It’s so hard for consumers to actually eat healthy.

Marion Nestle: Well I think that’s unfortunate because eating healthfully is so easy. All you have to do is make sure you’ve got fruits and vegetables in your diet, don’t overeat and don’t eat a lot of junk food. It’s not anymore complicated then that. I get so sad when people tell me that they’re just desperate to try to figure out what it is they’re suppose to do. I think just eat what you like, make sure you’ve got some veggies and don’t eat too much. You can monitor your weight and if you’re not gaining weight, you’re doing just fine. Relax, enjoy. Food is one of life’s greatest pleasures and people should be enjoying it and eating what they love. It makes me really sad that people are in such pain and it makes me angry with the food industry for deliberating confusing people

Kara Goldin: Yeah me too, me too. I think we’re on the same mission in a very similar way of looking at this. But maybe hitting it at just the discovery stages. I just, really interesting. But I also tell people it makes me a little sad too because I think it really is an ethics situation. I hope you’re right that a lot of people are just not connecting the dots. But I do think that these large companies are really doing stuff that is, at the end of the day, don’t allow consumers to always figure out how to get healthier.

Marion Nestle: Well, yeah. That’s why I write books. That’s my contribution to the confusion is to write books. I hope it’ll clear up some of it.

Kara Goldin: Yeah, absolutely.

Well this has been super great. Like I said, I’m excited to definitely sit down and read your book. What’s the best way for people to get your book? On Amazon?

Marion Nestle: They can get it at bookstore or however they get books. Information about it and about everything else I do is on my website, foodpolitics.com.

Kara Goldin: Which I love by the way.

Marion Nestle: Oh thank you.

Kara Goldin: It’s great.

Marion Nestle: I blog almost every day but I also post my papers there. When you send me a link to this, I’ll post it. I also post where I’m giving lectures. All of those things.

Kara Goldin: That’s wonderful.

Marion Nestle: Foodpolitics.com

Kara Goldin: Yup, foodpolitics.com. Her book, again, is Unsavory Truth: How Food Companies Skew the Science of What We Eat. Marion Nestle, thank you so much for taking the time with us today and we’re super excited to get this out there for everybody to learn more.

Marion Nestle: Great, thanks so much.