Backstory: What you eat is her beat

Marion Nestle, author and food-industry critic, tells how to navigate grocery aisles.

By , Correspondent of The Christian Science Monitor

Marion Nestle is standing in front of the refrigerated section in a local grocery, staring silently at five shelves of so-called convenience meals for kids. After a few seconds of scanning, she finds something that catches her eye: Pizza and Treatza, a Lunchables product from Kraft. It's a bright red, purple, and yellow package with a cartoonlike drawing on the front of two small pepperoni pizzas and a vanilla cookie with chocolate frosting and sprinkles. It's not hard to miss. But what's really drawn her attention is a green flag in the bottom right corner that says "Sensible Solutions."

"It's supposed to be a trigger for you that it's a healthier option," says Ms. Nestle. But after some quick calculations, she comes away with a different assessment. "It gives you one-fourth of the day's allotment of saturated fat, 44 grams of sugar, and 20 percent of the day's sodium," she says. "Give me a break."

Part nutritionist, part consumer-advocate, and completely outspoken, Nestle is doing what she likes to do most: making sure that consumers aren't duped when it comes to health and proper nutrition. Officially she is listed as the Paulette Goddard professor of Nutrition, Food Studies, and Public Health at New York University (NYU). But unofficially she may be the closest thing America has to a food sheriff.

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In books, lectures, and personal crusades, Nestle has positioned herself in the forefront of America's battle with the bulge. She was an early crusader on childhood obesity, the marketing of junk food to kids, and the removal of soda machines from schools. But Nestle's repertoire goes much broader than that, and she is unflinching in her criticism of one player in the nation's obesity epidemic in particular - big food companies. She's put them on the defensive about health claims on products. She's exposed the way they market their goods in the aisles and their politics in Washington. She asks a fundamental question: Who decides when a food is safe?

All this has turned her into something of a rock star among parents and food-policy-types - and a pariah in the food industry. On its website, the Center for Consumer Freedom, a coalition of restaurants and food companies, calls her "one of the country's most hysterical anti-food-industry fanatics."

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Nestle hardly looks the part of a one-woman insurgency. She has short, curly brown hair and brown eyes, and her mature face is often anchored by a broad grin. After nearly 40 years of working, she is at the age when most people think about retirement. But not Nestle. Last month marked the release of her fourth book, "What to Eat." Essentially a reference guide to understanding supermarkets, the book looks at packaging tricks and reveals truths about organic foods, meat, produce, even baby food. It also explores the little-known practice of food companies paying some supermarkets to place their products in the most profitable locations.

Nestle got the idea for the book after friends kept complaining that a trip to the supermarket these days was a confusing ordeal. She is quick to blame an overabundant food supply - too many companies marketing too many products. That pressure is transferred to supermarkets, which feel the added squeeze from warehouse and specialty stores. "As a consumer, you think of a supermarket as a convenience," Nestle says. "But from the supermarket's view, it's about selling real estate. It's about positioning the highest profit food in places where they will sell the most product - the end of the aisle, by the cash register, and at eye level in the center aisle."

As she makes her way through the store, nothing is safe from Nestle's wrath: "natural" pork, "fat-free" cooking spray, "100 percent" fruit juice all receiving poor marks for misleading labels. Even organic cereals fall prey to her watchful eye. "Notice that the healthy ones are up top and the junky ones are down here," she says, pointing to their positioning on an eye-level shelf.

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Born on the East Coast but raised in Los Angeles, Nestle didn't start her career by raising a ruckus at the produce rack. After earning her PhD in molecular biology in 1968, she took a job conducting post doctorate research at Brandeis University in Waltham, Mass. But the time- consuming work proved too difficult with two small children, so she switched to a teaching track. After Brandeis, she spent 10 years at the University of California, San Francisco, as associate dean at the School of Medicine.

She was the managing editor of the first and only report on nutrition and health by the US Surgeon General's office, and has worked as a dietary guideline adviser for the Food and Drug Administration, the Department of Agriculture, and the American Cancer Society.

But it wasn't until about four years ago, after she published her first book, "Food Politics," that Nestle solidified her role as a leading nutritionist and gadfly. Her book detailed how big companies use lobbyists to influence the food policies set by the US government. She followed up with "Safe Foods." This past semester Nestle took a leave from NYU to teach at her alma mater, UC Berkeley.

While her books have garnered praise and publishing awards, they've also made her a popular target. A couple years ago, The Sugar Association threatened her with a libel suit over comments she made during a radio interview about the sugar content in popular soda drinks. The Center for Consumer Freedom maintains a regular profile of Nestle on a website that describes her as a socialist whose only interest is pushing an anticorporate agenda, such as a tax on junk food. "This notion that we can't control what we eat is ridiculous," says Justin Wilson of the CCF.

But others laud her common sense and courage. During her stint at Berkeley, she hosted a series of lectures on food politics. At the final event, people crammed into a small auditorium. Many sat in the aisles. Afterward, dozens lined up to have her autograph books. "I think she is fabulous and has some guts to get out there," says Mary Granley, a nurse from Oakland, Calif. "She says what a lot of people are thinking."

Part of Nestle's appeal, clearly, is her delivery. She is confident in her arguments, but spices her broadsides with humor. On one subject, though, she's deadly serious - the marketing of junk food to children. By one estimate, companies now spend $15 billion a year pitching foods to kids.

As she walks down the aisle, Nestle points to a box of fruit chews, a popular snack food. At this store, at least two dozen choices are placed at the eye level of a small child. Most claim to be made with real fruit juice, but dig deeper into just one label, says Nestle, and the ingredient list reveals a different story - a lot of sugar. "Why would you feed this to your child?" she asks.

She believes consumers are so inundated with conflicting reports on health and nutrition that they can't sift through it all. She does have a few simple rules for navigating a store, though: "People shouldn't spend their time worrying whether one junky breakfast cereal is better than another. Don't shop the center aisles, and don't buy things with long ingredient lists."

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