NYU professor talks nutrition, agricultural policy

Marion Nestle knows that there is more to a box of Cheez-Its than first meets the eye.

Nestle, author of “What to Eat” and professor of nutrition, food studies and public health at New York University, spoke Thursday about the ways that agricultural policy and corporate marketing strategies affect the foods people eat — even Cheez-Its. More than 100 members of the Yale community attended Nestle’s talk in Linsly-Chittenden Hall. Audience members interviewed said they appreciated Nestle’s knowledgeable, yet accessible, approach to a complicated topic.

Marion Nestle, an NYU professor and the author of “What to Eat,” speaks about the food industry at a YSFP-sponsored event on Thursday.
Blair Benham-Pyle
Marion Nestle, an NYU professor and the author of “What to Eat,” speaks about the food industry at a YSFP-sponsored event on Thursday.

Nestle began her talk and PowerPoint presentation by addressing the root of the United States’ obesity epidemic. In the 1980s, changes in farm policy — through which the government began giving incentives to farmers to produce as much as possible — resulted in a surplus of food, she said. As a result, she said, food prices decreased, and Americans began eating larger portion sizes and dining out more often.

Nestle said her nutrition advice is simply to eat more healthful food and less junk food and to exercise more. But, she said, businesses have a different agenda.

“If people eat less, it’s very, very bad for business,” she said.

Nestle said she intended to make sense of the marketing strategies that grocery stores and food companies use to encourage consumers to purchase large quantities of their products.

When it comes to the designs of supermarket layouts, “there is nothing accidental,” Nestle said. She said the most profitable products — often unhealthful foods — are featured most prominently, and foods are displayed in large quantities to encourage consumers to buy more.

Nestle focused on one marketing strategy employed by food companies themselves — the use of nutritional and health information to sell foods. She said health claims on food packages are ironically often based on the producers’ own definitions of what is nutritious.

The key to successful reform of poor nutrition and health patterns in American society is encouraging both personal and social responsibility, she said.

“You’re the one making decisions,” said Nestle, who suggested avoiding foods with unfounded health claims and difficult-to-pronounce ingredients. “The objective of social change should be to make it easier for people to eat more healthfully.”

This task requires overhauling the way food is marketed and encouraging healthful eating habits in schools and community settings, as well as adjusting agricultural policies, such as those outlined in the U.S. Farm Bill, she said.

In light of the recent popularity of the slow, organic and locally grown food movements, changes in American food culture have begun to take place at the grassroots level, Nestle said.

The Yale Sustainable Food Project and the Yale Farm are models for people looking to foster this type of progress in their own communities, she said.

Audience members interviewed said they thought Nestle’s presentation, which she peppered with references to related newspaper articles and books, was a comprehensive explanation of the interaction between policy, food and nutrition.

“I thought she gave a fair introduction to a broad array of arguments about agriculture in general,” said Ben Henshaw, who has a farm in Kentucky.

Anastatia Curley ’07, communications coordinator for the Yale Sustainable Food Project, said she was especially interested in Nestle’s emphasis on the ways in which agricultural policy, such as the Farm Bill, influence what foods people choose to eat.

Meliessa Hennessy EPH ’09 said she enjoyed Nestle’s accessible explanation of the complex issues of agriculture and marketing.

“She has a grasp of all the issues and is able to distill them down,” she said.

Nestle’s talk was the fifth in the Chewing the Fat series, sponsored by the Yale Sustainable Food Project.

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