Who doesn't love Marion Nestle?  The grand priestess of food politics was evangelizing about the politics of food--from nutrition, safety, policy and cultural angles--before it was even hip. She's seen the fight from every side: on the government's, as the editor of the Surgeon General's Report on Nutrition and Health and as a member of the Dietary Guidelines Advisor Committee, but also in the 'secular world' as the chair of NYU's Department of Nutrition, Food Studies and Public Health and author of three books on the implications of your food choices. Reading her is listening to the voice of a sensible-but-affable aunt whose advice, while it might resemble your mother's, sounds much more palatable coming from someone else. I especially like the fact that she posted even the bad reviews of her books on her website--under the tab "Controversies." Guts!

Labeling has been of great interest to me, so I was curious about Nestle's response to the question of what needs to be changed about the current Nutrition Facts labels required on every packaged food so a rational person understands what the hell they mean. 

"When Congress passed the nutrition labeling act of 1990, which mandated Nutrition Facts labels on packaged foods, the FDA created a bunch of possible designs and tested them on consumers. The result: nobody understood any of the designs. The FDA chose the one that consumers least misunderstood," Nestle begins. She follows by stating her belief that the ingredient list is far more of an indicator of the food's nutritional value than the Facts. "My rule, only somewhat facetious, is to never buy foods that have more than 5 ingredients. The more processed a food is, the more ingredients it is likely to have (to cover up the losses), and the lower its nutritional quality."

In another post, she writes about how to shop for cereal. "The packages are, in their weird way, fun to look at. They represent the best thinking of marketers about how to get you to eat processed cereals, to believe that they are good for you, and to insist that nothing else will do for breakfast. The slotting-fee system makes it easier to find the healthier options. All you have to do is look for the worst real estate and reach high or off to the sides for the ones with the short ingredient lists, lots of fiber, and not much sugar." 

Ultimately, her rule of thumb on what to eat is much the same as Michael Pollan's: "Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants."

Story by Nathalie Jordi. This article originally appeared in Plenty in August 2007.

Copyright Environ Press 2007

Advice from food politics royalty
Marion Nestle offers some thoughts on nutrition labeling and the food industry.