Something’s rotten in the science of food

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Author, Marion Nestle. Photo by Bill Hayes

Leading nutritionist Marion Nestle has spent much of her long illustrious career writing about what we eat and the science of food. The James Beard award-winner and author of the blog Food Politics has written a whopping 14 acclaimed books on subjects related to nutrition, including “Soda Politics” and “What to Eat.” And yet, “Unsavory Truths: How Food Companies Skew the Science of What We Eat, ” a book journalist Robert Scheer calls one of her most important books to date, has gone largely ignored by mainstream media. On this week’s installment of “Scheer Intelligence,” Nestle joins Scheer to discuss some of the shocking revelations  the author uncovered about the links between food science and the incredibly powerful food industry. 

Nestle, who is also Paulette Goddard Professor  of Nutrition, Food Studies, and Public Health, Emerita, at New York University,​​ describes how scientists, who largely depend on private funding to do their research and keep their jobs, don’t often see the flaws in a system in which food corporations fund work that ultimately helps them sell products. 

“Scientists don't believe that they're biased,” Nestle tells Scheer. “They think that science is science and as long as the science is good then there's nothing wrong with the study. But as I got more and more involved in the research [for my book], I could see how the biases are built in from the beginning. 

“[For example, food trade associations] are not going to fund anything that's not likely to demonstrate the benefits [of their product]. So from the get-go, the studies are being designed to give the trade associations and the companies the kinds of information that they want, that they can use in marketing, or to use in fending off federal regulation, or to use for whatever commercial purposes they need.” 

A recent report by The Guardian underscores just how powerful the food industry is in the U.S., finding that, “​​A handful of powerful companies control the majority market share of almost 80% of dozens of grocery items bought regularly by ordinary Americans” and that “only 15 cents of every dollar we spend in the supermarket goes to farmers. The rest goes to processing and marketing our food.”

Scheer, who describes reading Nestle’s book while at a supermarket, tells the food expert that she changed his entire understanding of food and nourishment. Highlighting Nestle’s numerous scientific degrees, including a PhD in molecular biology and an M.P.H. in public health nutrition from the University of California, Berkeley, the journalist argues that part of why Nestle’s work “irritates” powerful corporate interests and is ignored by media is her courage to talk about the politics of food. 

“Reading your book,” Scheer tells Nestle, “there was a certain clarity to it. It's all bull. Most of the stuff that's done about food, the regulation, is totally compromised by politics, by money. The food industries control most of the regulation; they control the dialogue. And suddenly things that I was reaching for as a customer, that I thought were going to do me some good, I doubted.” 

Listen to the full discussion between Nestle and Scheer as the food expert describes some of the most egregious examples of companies interfering in science and proposes a different funding model for the research at the heart of everything we eat. 



Joshua Scheer