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

I am drawn into Marion Nestle books like a moth to a flame. When she preaches nutrition, I say a loud “Amen,” but when she goes on her rampages about how evil the food industry is, I just want to say “Give me a break!” Unsavory Truth is the fourth of Nestle’s books I have read. In each one, I picked up a gem of wisdom despite the heartburn I suffered to find them. Those who have liked her previous books will like her latest. Those who find them frustrating will probably find this one take their frustration to the next level.

As I have stated before, I generally treat anyone claiming to have found “The Truth” with great skepticism. Honesty is a good policy, but that is only one definition of truth. Claiming “The Truth” about something puts the proclaimer clearly in the right and all skeptics clearly in the wrong. Science functions to pursue truth through skepticism. Such skeptics as Darwin, Pasteur, Einstein, Heisenberg, Watson and Crick challenged the status quo and got us closer to the truth through their studies and theories. I don’t claim to be in their league, but I do believe my voice has a right to be heard. With Nestle becoming the arbiter of Truth with all things about food, guess who becomes the spreader of false narratives? The answer will be revealed next week on this site. Starting from the most agreeable quotes from her book in bold below proceeding to the ones that drive me nuts:

“Dividing foods into good and bad is a slippery slope. Endorsements, even those for “healthy” foods, have no real meaning for health; their purpose is marketing.” When it comes to basic nutrition, Nestle and I are largely in agreement. I, too, get frustrated with Big Food when it markets a specific nutrient, ingredient, or product attribute without placing that item in its proper context. I think that the two of us would agree that nutrients matter, but that nutrients should be consumed in the context of food and food in the context of the diet. When I use diet in this article, I am referring the totality of what a person eats and NOT a temporary state to restrict food with a goal of losing weight.

cartons of almond milk and cow's milk
Nut milk or dairy–healthy or unhealthy?

I also agree with the author that promotion of “healthy” foods is not nearly as useful as promotion of healthy diets. But Unsavory Truth blames food manufacturers as the sole purveyor of fake news about “healthy” foods. Google alerts me to numerous articles daily about how we need to abandon processed food and eat healthy food such as the one here, here and here. Is Nestle implying that most diet books or websites that advocate eating “healthy” foods are merely marketing ideas and associated products or is she giving these outlets a pass? Dividing foods into healthy and unhealthy tends to skew diets to becoming highly restrictive and unhealthy.

“Any time you see a report that a single food, beverage, supplement, food product or ingredient causes or reduces the risk for obesity, heart disease, type 2 diabetes, or cancer, it is a good idea to envision a red warning flag flying high in the air.” Once again Nestle and I agree. To be declared on a label specific health claims must meet FDA guidelines. We Americans appear to be victims of the unintended consequences associated with the passage of the Dietary Supplement Health and Education Act of 1994 (DSHEA). In my opinion, the law opened the floodgates for seeking to associate specific nutrients and ingredients with specific health outcomes. Instead of regulating supplements as drugs, DSHEA allowed them to be regulated as food, making a reality of  the let-your-food-be-your-medicine-and-medicine-be-your-food movement. It set off a dash for scientific verification of potential health claims. If a particular ingredient in a food can meet the criteria, then the product can make a claim. Once again, food should be evaluated in the context of the diet and not in and of itself as healthy or unhealthy. DSHEA turned that concept on its head.

Keto protein display marketed for weight control
Beneficial or not beneficial? Photo by Erica Kenney

Food marketers are adept at highlighting a health claim for a packaged food without putting the product into a nutritional context. Likewise, advocates or sellers of miracle molecules, supplements or products are adept at marketing their wares. Raspberry ketone, nitric oxide, kratom, anyone? Are superfoods that super? Does kombucha do everything for us that it claims? The internet is full of images and magic phrases that can be placed on the label of a processed food to give it instant credibility as “healthy”. Big Food doesn’t need scientific studies to hype gluten-free, dairy-free, preservative-free, or uncured meat. Marketers are proficient at exploiting consumer fears by promoting products to meet these needs or salve fears stoked by popular articles.

“meat-eating is consistently associated with disease risk, but whether it causes disease or is just a marker for other causal factors has been difficult to demonstrate.” The author makes a responsible statement which I will not contest. It is a far cry from a call to tax meat to save hundreds of thousands of lives each year, however, or that eating grass-fed or organic meat will somehow mitigate the effects of grain-fed meat? Such increased risk does not mean that meat causes these diseases. For example, meat eaters may just eat more food, and thus more calories, than vegans. Generally, the arguments against meat tend to emphasize that even small amounts of meat are dangerous. Such articles tend to confuse relative risk with absolute risk as highlighted in the book How Risky is It Really? These articles may highlight the difficulty of drawing firm conclusions from nutritional studies. Marketers of food products and miracle molecules use the uncertainty to deflect skeptics. Advocates of ideas use statements or scientific results to suggest certainty where it is not. Both extremes lack a nuanced approach or a scientific rationale.

“The basic principles of eating healthfully have remained remarkably constant over the years: eat a wide variety of relatively unprocessed foods in reasonable amounts.” Once again, I am in agreement with the constancy of dietary advice over the years. News stories sensationalize differences from previous recommendations without placing them into context, much like food marketers. I also heartily endorse the idea of a balanced diet, which when mentioned is generally associated with boring. Sometimes boring is good, particularly when it keeps us away from extreme and dangerous diets. The 60s, 70s and even 80s that I seem to remember are not the same as the decades that Nestle seems to remember. Dietary recommendations back then were based on balancing food groups to make sure we were getting sufficient amounts of protein, vitamins and minerals without taking in too many calories.

Canned vegetables and fish on a pantry shelf
Are canned foods relatively unprocessed?

The recommendations to consume relatively unprocessed foods seem to me to be a more recent thing. And just what is a relatively unprocessed food anyway? Is canned asparagus cooked in a giant pressure cooker at high temperatures which destroys much of its B vitamins relatively unprocessed? What about a baked cheese cracker that has more than 5 ingredients, some of which are difficult to pronounce? I can remember reading books by Adelle Davis, J.I. Rodale, and Euell Gibbons, whose views on processed food and preservatives were considered extreme and way out of the mainstream when Nestle and I were young. Michael Pollan, Mark Hyman and Vani Hari (aka The Food Babe) have led the way to telling us to avoid processed food, an idea which is much more widely accepted in today’s mainstream culture.

To this point, Nestle and I could have a rational discussion. Unfortunately, there are many aspects of the book where she is adamant and dogmatic. She has very strong opinions about the food industry, how it skews the science we read about as it relates to food, and, in turn, how it is making the American diet unhealthy. I agree that there is some merit to her argument, but she takes that argument to a level that shuts out meaningful dialog to the point that “The Truth” she proclaims is all that matters and typical scientific skepticism is not to be tolerated. I am not finished commenting on Unsavory Truth but will revisit some of its darker side  of this book next week.

Congratulations to Anna Zeide whose book Canned won the James Beard Award for Reference, History and Scholarship. Anna and I had an interesting three -week dialog on her book last year.

Next week: To be continued—more Unsavory Truth and beyond

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