Big Think Interview with Marion Nestle
Marion Nestle is a consumer activist, nutritionist, and academic who specializes in the politics of food and dietary choice. Nestle received her BA, PhD, and MPH from the University of California, Berkeley. In 1988, Nestle was appointed Chair of New York University’s Steinhardt School of Nutrition, Food Studies, and Public Health. She held that position until 2004, when she became the Paulette Goddard Professor in the same department.
Nestle is the author of numerous books, including "Food Politics," which explored the way corporations influence our nutritional choices, and "What to Eat," an survey of how to navigate the modern American supermarket. Aside from her books and teaching, Nestle writes a popular blog for the Atlantic Food Channel.
Question: Are there any specific foods you recommend for a healthy diet?
Marion Nestle: I don’t think about food that way. I think about food in categories. I think it’s important that we eat a balanced diet and that means lots of fruits and vegetables and whole grains. Everybody knows that diets that are based on those are associated with good health and then meat and dairy, if you eat meat and dairy products, you just want to eat a lot of different kinds of foods. I don’t think there’s any one food that anybody needs. I can’t think of a single food that – a single, single food, that is absolutely essential. If you look at human diets across the entire world, you see the diets vary enormously and dependent on what’s available locally. So, the whole business about, you need to eat this food or you shouldn’t eat that, that’s all about marketing. It’s not about health.
Question: What are the potential threats of consuming too much caffeine?
Marion Nestle: You know, scientists have tried for decades to find something wrong with caffeine, and it can’t. No matter how hard they try. We metabolize caffeine. Some of us metabolize it better than others. I happen to be a fast metabolizer, so it doesn’t affect me at all unless I have really a lot of it. But for people who are sensitive to caffeine, they know it. They know that if they eat something that has caffeine in it, they get jumpy and shaky and they don’t like the way it feels, so they cut back on it. But if you’re not really consuming huge quantities, it doesn’t have very much of an effect.
I don’t think it’s so good for kids. And certainly teachers in school complain a lot that if the kids are highly caffeinated they are bouncing off the walls and it makes it harder for the kids to concentrate, and harder for them to do their work. So, that would be the main thing. But what really bothers me about it is it’s not labeled. I think it ought to be labeled on food products and on drinks so then people have a choice. Right now they don’t have a choice.
Question: Are there any foods that could replace caffeine in one’s diet?
Marion Nestle: Yeah, energy in food comes from protein, fat, and carbohydrate. Any food with protein, fat, or carbohydrate will give you energy. You want fast energy, then that’s carbohydrates, rapidly absorbable carbohydrates, or sugars. But all foods give you energy. That’s what calories are about. That’s why you have to eat if you need energy and the nutrients that go with it.
Question: Are Americans eating too much salt?
Marion Nestle: There’s way too much salt in American diets. Even people who aren’t susceptible to hypertension are getting too much salt, and there’s so much evidence that salt is related to high blood pressure. And high blood pressure is related to a whole host of chronic diseases; coronary heart disease, stroke, and so forth. It would be really terrific if we could cut down on our salt intake. We don’t need nearly as much as we are eating. And the real problem with it is that nearly 80% of the salt in American diets is there before anybody has any choice about it. It’s either in the processed food that we buy in the store, or it’s in the restaurant food, or the food, the prepared meals that are outside. The amount that’s added to the table is minimal to what’s already there. So what the means is that for somebody who wants to cut down on salt, you can’t eat processed foods, and you can’t eat restaurant foods.
We need to do something about that at the policy level so that restaurants and processed foods will cut down on the salt and make it easier for people to eat less.
Question: Are there any policies being enacted that could change this?
Marion Nestle: There’s a lot going on in government right now trying to work with food manufacturers and restaurants to cut down. New York City, for example, has a very quiet, under the table initiative to try to get the salt. And you see, the problem with salt is that if you’re eating a lot of it, you don’t notice the taste of it. You only notice the taste of it if you’re not eating a lot of it. And so, if everybody in the population was eating less, then the foods that are out there would taste terribly salty. But unless all of the food manufacturers and all of the restaurants cut down at the same time, then nobody wants to go first. That’s what the problem is. That’s why you need government intervention in this, to try to make it easier for people to cut down on their salt intake because even if you want to, it’s really hard.
Question: What does organic mean?
Marion Nestle: Organic in the United States has a very precise meaning. It’s what the Department of Agriculture defines it as, and it defines it very precisely for plants as no genetic engineering, no irradiation, no fertilization with sewage sludge, no chemical fertilizers, or any of those kinds of things. It’s a very precise definition of what can and cannot go into a food that is called “organic.”
With animals, the definition is also quite precise. The animals have to be raised on organic feed, they have to have access to the outdoors, they can’t be treated with antibiotics or hormones and so forth. The rules are very long. And the places that produce those organic animals or plants are inspected to make sure that they are following the rules. So, that’s that system and to the extent that it works, it works pretty well. Most people think it works pretty well and there’s not an enormous amount of cheating going on because of the inspection system and because the organic producers know what the others are doing and so they turn each other in if there’s a problem. There’s not a lot of cheating going on.
But with that said, a lot of people feel that the organic rules are not strong enough, that they really don’t deal in particular with the ability of animals to be outdoors just because they have access to the outdoors doesn’t mean they are actually outdoors. That’s a big loophole. And also, there’s no requirement for sustainability. So, you can have industrial organic agriculture that is just as devastating to land, sea, and air and climate as industrial anything else. And that’s, I think, a problem.
I think the Department of Agriculture is looking at ways to strengthening the organic rules and ways to make sure that they are kept honest.
Question: How should one feed their pet?
Marion Nestle: Yeah, pets are in many ways just like people. Just like people can eat lots of different kinds of diets and they’re perfectly healthy diets. Think about the difference between Mediterranean and Asian diets, for example. They’re really different and yet people can thrive on it. The same thing is true of cats and dogs. You can feed them a lot of different kinds of foods and they’ll do just fine.
Question: What should pet owners watch out for?
Marion Nestle: Well, you need to make sure that they’re getting all of their vitamins and minerals, and that the calcium and phosphate balance is appropriate for bones. But beyond that, you want to feed pets a varied diet in the same way that you want to feed yourself a varied diet. And if you’re eating a healthy diet, a really healthy diet, you can feed your pet what you’re eating. With a coupe of supplements, they’ll do just fine.
Question: Human food?
Marion Nestle: I mean if you think about it for a minute, that’s how those animals were eating, well I guess cats I guess were out hunting, but dogs, the way that dogs got tamed and they descended from wolves over thousands and thousands of years, but everybody thinks that the way that happened was that they started hanging around garbage dumps. And if you’ve had a dog, one of those dogs that isn’t finicky, you know that dogs will eat anything.
Question: Even meat?
Marion Nestle: I mean, they were carnivores originally. They descended from carnivorous wolves, so they do just fine with meat. You don’t want to give them bones unless you’re watching them very carefully because the bones can shatter and do bad things. But you want to be careful about the bones.
Question: Are school lunches promoting childhood obesity?
Marion Nestle: Yeah, school lunches are promoting childhood obesity, but in an indirect way. They set – whatever goes on in school sets an example for kids about what’s supposed to be. And if the kids are being fed chicken fingers and salty foods, and sweet things, and have a lot of sweet and salty snacks around that they’re eating, they think that’s appropriate. And that the school saying, this is what you’re supposed to be eating. And that’s why I think it’s so important to have school lunches that are healthy food, and I think there are schools that do. And they’re very impressive. Guess what, the kids eat it. And seem perfectly happy.
Question: What measures can we take to make school programs healthier?
Marion Nestle: Yeah, there are two things that have to happen. One is the government has to set rules for what kids can and cannot eat in schools so that the rules are in place. And then you need people in the schools who really care about wanting to do a good job of feeding kids and think it’s really important for kids to eat healthfully. In schools where that’s happening, the food is good, the kids are eating it, everybody’s happy.
Question: Is vegetarianism healthier than a carnivorous diet?
Marion Nestle: I think that a healthy diet has small amounts of meat. You can be a vegetarian and be perfectly healthy, and vegetarians, in general are healthier than people who eat a lot of meat. But there are advantages to eating small amount of meat. They’re not necessary advantages, but they’re there. And certainly in developing countries where kids don’t have enough food, a little meat thrown in makes a big nutritional difference. In the United States, where there’s plenty of food around, I don’t think it makes very much difference. The only thing that vegetarians need to worry about is eating a variety of food and getting enough calories, which is not very hard to do. I don’t see vegetarian diet as being issue in any way whatsoever, as long as there is some animal food in the diet, like eggs, or fish, or dairy products, or something like that. The minute you move from that into vegan diets, you raise questions about one vitamin and that’s vitamin B12 because that only comes from products of animal origin, or bacterially fermented foods. So, you have to make sure you have a source of vitamin B12 in your diet and that you’re eating a variety of foods. But other than that, I just don’t see it as an issue at all.
Except for kids. For small children, it’s sometimes hard for children to get enough calories unless they’re getting enough fat in with the vegan diets that they’re getting, but vegan parents know how to deal with that. Most of them, and do a pretty good job. And the kids are healthy. It’s fine.
I kind of see all of that as a non-issue and I’m surprised at the passion about it on both sides. I still hear from people about how dangerous vegetarian diets are, which seems kind of silly. And on the other hand, I hear from vegetarians and vegans about how terrible it is to eat meat. And I don’t buy either one of those.
Question: Is vegetarianism inherently better for the environment?
Marion Nestle: Yeah, the issue of meat eating and the issue of the environment is and important one, particularly industrially raised meat and confined animal feeding operations where you have a large number of animals in a very small area. And there’s the whole question of, first of all, what happens to all of their waste because a pig farm can easily produce the amount of waste that a city of 20,000 people would produce in a day, and yet it’s not treated. No human population of 20,000 would be allowed to produce waste that wasn’t treated to destroy pathogenic bacteria, and yet we have laws that allow these places to pollute the environment with animal waste. I think that a huge problem. If you go to a place that’s near a pig farm, you know about that pig farm miles away. You can smell it. That’s something that we need to do something about and I don’t think that people should be allowed to leave their waste untreated.
There are other issues that have to do with greenhouses gasses, and the fact that so much of our grain; corn and soybeans particularly, are grown expressly to feed animals. If we didn’t eat so much meat, then we wouldn’t need to grow all that food to feed animals and that would also have great benefits for the environment. So, I guess where I stand on this is, if you do eat meat, then just don’t eat so much of it.
Recorded on: January 14, 2009
A conversation with the New York University Professor of Nutrition.
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