The food industry is a business, not a public health agency

Consumer understanding of the food industry has changed tremendously in the last 20 years. When Dr. Marion Nestle published her book Food Politics in 2002, most of her audience hadn’t thought about how food could be political. Now, she says, readers understand that not having enough to eat or having the wrong kind of food to eat, and how an agricultural system that promotes greenhouse gas emissions is inherently political.

When we make choices about food, we are voting with our fork. Those choices are extremely important for what kinds of foods and products are available and produced – they’re responsible, for example, for the great interest in the plant-based products we see in the supermarket. Fruits and vegetables, however, are not very profitable. “In fact, the more highly processed the food product is, the worse it is for us and the better it is for the food companies’ profit line,” says Dr. Nestle. Navigating what to eat is often driven by consumer understanding, what’s available, and what’s affordable – but marketing may be the most powerful force of all: “What the culture tells you you should be eating, what’s served to you in institutions, what’s advertised on television and social media.”

“The more highly processed the food product is, the worse it is for us and the better it is for the food companies’ profit line.”

“Food companies are not social service agencies. They’re not public health agencies,” says Dr. Nestle. “They’re businesses. And they have stockholders who are interested in one thing and one thing only – and that’s profit.”

Real food has ingredients you recognize

“I think dietary advising is very easy,” says Dr. Nestle. “It’s so easy that the journalist Michael Pollan can do it in seven words: eat food, not too much, mostly plants.”

But defining food as something that is real and not highly-processed is a relatively new concept in nutrition. In 2009, a group of public health researchers at The University of Sao Paulo, Brazil, developed the concept of ultra-processed foods – industrially-processed foods that can’t be made in home kitchens because you can’t buy the ingredients at the supermarket. Many correlational studies link ultra-processed foods to eating too much, gaining weight, and being at higher risk for Type 2 diabetes, heart disease, and certain forms of cancer.

These foods are “enormously profitable for the companies that make them and [they] design them to be absolutely irresistible,” notes Dr. Nestle.

Organics are more about planetary health than nutritional health

“[Organics] is one of those things like climate change and cigarettes that the industry has done everything that it can to prevent doing research and to cast doubt on the research that is there,” says Dr. Nestle. She notes that it would be difficult to demonstrate that organic vegetables were more nutritious than conventionally-produced vegetables because the vitamin content would likely be the same. But that says nothing for the health effects of pesticides, which there is little research on. If people can afford to avoid pesticides, they should. “If they can’t, it’s really okay not to,” she says.

The larger picture of planetary health is a different question. “Our agricultural system is designed to produce feed for animals and fuel for automobiles. Food for humans is a tiny part of the agricultural system,” she says. A different kind of agricultural system that was less dependent on pesticides would be less harmful to wildlife, waterways, and land.

“I don’t see how you can separate human health from planetary health.”

“I don’t see how you can separate human health from planetary health,” Dr. Nestle says. “The linkages are so tight, we really can’t consider one without the other. We need an agricultural system that is kinder to the planet. And I think that system would be healthier for people as well.”

You need a doctorate degree to fully understand food labels

“The first thing to know about [food labels] is that nobody understands them except for college professors,” says Dr. Nestle. “Most people look at either the calories or they look at the sugar.” Dr. Nestle, however, recommends looking at the ingredients list.

“The ingredient list is a big giveaway on whether the product is ultra-processed or not,” she says. A good starting point is to not buy something with five or more ingredients in it. If it’s up to 20 or more then you know you’re looking at an ultra-processed item – “chances are you’re going to be eating more of it than you probably should if you’re going to be healthy.”

“There are too many things to know,” Dr. Nestle says. Certain ingredients are ones you should be eating more of, while others are ones you should be eating less of. That’s why countries in Latin America, including Chile and Brazil, have started putting a warning label on packages that are high in salt, sugar, saturated fats, and calories. Tested on children and those who can’t read, the black seals deter people from buying these ultra-processed products. “So you don’t need to have a doctorate in molecular biology like me to be able to read a food label,” she says.

A healthy diet goes beyond buying organic

“The one break that we’re all getting is that the diet that is best for the planet is also the diet that is healthiest for people,” says Dr. Nestle. Two recent studies published in The Lancet look at diets that do triple duty: prevent hunger, prevent chronic disease, and prevent climate change. For people in the US and industrialized countries, that diet would include half the amount of meat and twice the amount of vegetables.

But there are many other fad diets and product marketing tactics to sift through to get to the truth about how we should be eating. Here’s Marion’s take on a few of them:

Plant-based meats: There’s an enormous amount of investor interest in plant-based meats, but not much evidence on their health benefits or effects. What we do know is these products are highly processed. “They contain about 20 ingredients and there’s no real food in them – it’s a concoction of industrially-produced ingredients,” says Dr. Nestle. “There’s a big push to try to get people to eat less meat because that would be better for health and better for the planet. But does that mean that you have to eat artificial meats as a substitute?” The short answer is no. It’s quite possible to have a healthy diet without meat.

Fasting: “Fasting has been imposed on people, and then people fast because they think it’s fun or it’s going to make them healthy,” says Dr. Nestle. There have been many studies about fasting, primarily in World War II. “Fasting for short periods of time is not harmful and it could be helpful to people who have metabolic problems that need to be cooled down,” she says. Generally, though, Dr. Nestle recommends eating when you’re hungry. “Over the long haul, [fasting is] not very much fun,” she says. “Food is one of life’s greatest pleasures. I don’t want to deny myself.”

Alcohol: Dr. Nestle’s take on alcohol is simple: “Less is better.” “For a long time, the alcohol industry tried to convince everybody that one or two drinks a day was ideal, and that nondrinkers had greater risk of heart disease and other problems than moderate or heavy drinkers,” says Dr. Nestle. “That research is not holding up very well.” Less is better, she reiterates, but if you’re going to drink, it’s best to do it with food so it metabolizes more slowly.

“The key to healthy diets is to vary the foods that you’re eating.”

Superfoods: “Superfoods” is just another marketing term. “Even the producers of fruits and vegetables have to sell their products,” Dr. Nestle says. But these are all healthy foods. “They’re all trying to get research that will show that they have more antioxidants or more of some vitamins,” she says. “But the key to healthy diets is to vary the foods that you’re eating. And that’s because foods have different combinations of essential nutrients. And if you’re eating a wide variety of foods, you’re going to get all the nutrients you need.” Eat the fruits and vegetables you like, she says – “they’re all superfoods.”