David L. Katz: A Food System for Dummies

Question: How do we encourage people to eat more nutritious food? 


David Katz: In 2003, I was invited by then Secretary of health Tommy Thomson as part of a group of 15 to come to DC sit around the conference table with the secretary, with the commissioner of the FDA with the heads of the NIH and CDC and certain general and go around the table take a turn and offer up a suggestion as to what the FDA could do to combat the trends in obesity and diabetes. So I was there, I participated. It was a great privilege and when my turn came I said, “Mr. Secretary, Mr. Commissioner, Mark McClellan at the time, we need a food supply for dummies. We got everything for dummies in this country. We need a PhD in Nutritional Biochemistry to know which bread to buy if you care about the health of your family.

Now I know this, not any PhD will do because my wife has a PhD from Princeton in neuroscience. But it's not Nutritional Biochemistry. Now, she's a very smart woman, we have five kids, she's been married to me for twenty years. I very much doubt there's too many more sophisticated shoppers in the entire country. And she knows everything there is to know. Even she, periodically comes home from the supermarket with smoke coming out of her ears because she'll say, “David, I know you want the most nutritious bread but listen bud, this one got the most fiber but also has the most sodium, this one has less sodium doesn’t have quite as much fiber but it has high fructose corn syrup, this doesn’t have the high fructose corn syrup it’s got intermediate high fiber, less sodium and although it says euro gram trans fat on the front, it says partially hydrogenated oil in the ingredient list. You want the most nutritious bread, you figure it out which one it is.” Well, that’s just too hard.

We need the food supply for dummies. Convene a multidisciplinary panel of the best nutrition public health experts in the land, give them the support they need, and let them take everything we know about nutrition and express it in symbols as simple as ABC, 123, green, yellow, red, put it in the front of every bag, box, bottle, jar, and can in the food supply so that everyone is a nutrition expert. And then when people know what is truly better for them the question will be, will they care? Let's work on making them care. Let's get out and tell them how much this matters. ‘Cause if they care and they know then they can act. And if they act, if they change their demand, if they voted every cash register in every supermarket in the country, the food supply will change. Because all they really want to do at the end of the day is sell their products and make the customers happy. If it takes something different to make the customers happy, this immutable thing, the typical American diet, the food supply will change. We can change it.

Well they said, “Thanks for coming Dave, don’t call us and we probably won’t call you.” That’s pretty much what happened. Because what we have is the problem between the food supply the way it exist and the entanglements between for example the department of agriculture and large agri-businesses. You know, there’s always a great deal of incentive to preserve the status quo. The military industrial complex, we all heard about that. So the status quo is self perpetuating, but I got to be in my bonnet after that discussion. I thought, “If the secretary and the commissioner, the FDA or the IOMs isn’t going to do this, it ought to be done nonetheless.” So I did it.

I was very privileged to be in a position where when I called upon my colleagues to work with me, to develop such a system, just about everybody I asked said, “Yes.” The President of the American Cancer Society past presidents of the American Diet Ethic Association, the American Diabetes Association, the Inventory of the Glycemic Index, the Chair of Nutrition at Harvard, the Elite of Nutrition in Public Health came together, and we worked together for two years and developed the overall nutritional quality index which takes 30-50 nutrition entries, puts them through an algorithm that is basically 18 pages of completely mind-numbing computer programming for which I’m primarily responsible. But at the end of all that complexity, spits out a number between one and 100. The higher the number, the more nutritious the food. That simple. A food supply for dummies. At this point, NuVal is  available in over 500 supermarkets around the United States.


Recorded on: July 06, 2009

The Yale University Director worries that consumers need a PhD to understand what they’re eating. He proposes simplifying food labels so everyone can be a nutritional expert.

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