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Backstory: What you eat is her beat

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

By Carolyn AbateCorrespondent of The Christian Science Monitor / June 1, 2006



BERKELEY, CALIF.

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."

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"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.

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."

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