MELISSA BLOCK host:
From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Melissa Block.
Depending on your point of view, you might call Marion Nestle a food nag, a much needed thorn in the side of the food industry, a consumer champion or an enemy of business. She's been called all those things and worse. Marion Nestle is a nutritionist. Her new book, titled What To Eat, is aimed at helping shoppers make healthy choices as they navigate the aisles of their local grocery store. She says there's a reason that milk is usually way in the back.
Ms. MARION NESTLE (Nutritionist): Almost everybody who comes in to a store comes in for milk or some kind of dairy product and if it's way in the back, you've got to traverse lots and lots of aisles in order to get there. And the object of the game is to get you to walk through as much of the store's real estate as you possibly can because the more products you see, the more you buy.
BLOCK: Well I raided my own refrigerator and my pantry shelves this morning and I brought some things in. I should explain that you're in New York and I'm in Washington, so you can't see, but I'm going to tell you what I have.
Ms. NESTLE: I can't read your labels.
BLOCK: What I have from the yogurt collection is a container of Yoplait Light and Fluffy Whips. I have a squeezer from Stony Field Farm Natural and Organic, a berry blitz squeezer that my daughter is refusing to eat, and from Dannon, Activia vanilla yogurt with - I don't know how to pronounce this - bifidis regulara.
Ms. NESTLE: Bifidis.
BLOCK: And what links these three yogurt products together, if anything? Is any one better than any other?
Ms. NESTLE: Well they all started out as yogurt, which is a cultured milk, milk treated with bacteria that fall into what biologists call the friendly category, that is, they're good for your intestine. They don't make toxins. They're healthy bacteria and you like having them around. But it's the additives that go into yogurt that have changed it for the most part from a food that's pretty healthy to a dessert and so my first question is, what's the sugar content of these little packages that you've got, particularly the ones that are targeted to your kids?
BLOCK: Well, I'll tell you the squeezer, if I can decode the label - nine grams of sugar.
Ms. NESTLE: For a serving that's how big?
BLOCK: One tube.
Ms. NESTLE: And how many calories is a tube all together?
BLOCK: 60 calories and -
Ms. NESTLE: 60 calories. So nine grams of sugar is approximately 36 calories, so that mean 36 of those 60 calories are from added sugars and so the calories in that product are mainly from added sugars. It's a dessert.
BLOCK: So it's organic, that's good, but also really high in sugar.
Ms. NESTLE: Organic junk foods are still junk foods. What can I tell you? They still have calories.
BLOCK: What trends have you been seeing in terms of how food is marketed to kids?
Ms. NESTLE: Well, first of all, marketing to kids, I think, crosses an ethical line. I see no reason why food companies should be permitted to market directly to children. And you can tell that a food is being marketed directly to children because it's got a big cartoon on it and it's got games and it signals I'm a toy not a food. And the amount of money that goes into that is really quite staggering.
But what I see as the major trend is that health is being increasingly used to sell products to kids so the parents will think that it's okay to buy this food. And I guess the best example of that is whole grain Cocoa Puffs or whole grain sweetened cereals of some kind. These are still low fiber cereals and they're still pre-sweetened, but there they are with whole grain on them and you're supposed to think that that means that the calories are low and they're health food.
BLOCK: So what would you have them do?
Ms. NESTLE: Well, I would restrict television advertising, for one thing. And also take a very hard look at what is called stealth marketing, that is the marketing of food products on the internet, on cell phones, in movies, in videos and in ways that busy parents don't even have a clue is going on.
I also, if it were up to me, I would say they couldn't put any cartoons on food packages and I'd try to quiet it down. I've just come back from a week in Europe and I was very impressed by how much quieter the marketing scene is. You know, there's just foods, and the idea is to get kids to eat foods. They're not trying to convince kids that they're only supposed to eat foods that are marketed specifically to them, which is what I think food marketing is doing.
BLOCK: But ultimately, it is the parents who are buying those foods and if the parents are making the choice to go in and buy whole grain Cocoa Puffs, isn't that their responsibility?
Ms. NESTLE: It absolutely is their responsibility, but they have to exercise that responsibility with information and most of information about food products comes from the food industry. They spend about 36 billion dollars a year marketing their products and in a sense that's where my book came in, because I saw this enormous gap in information. I was really impressed by how complicated the issues are.
BLOCK: Your book is about 600 pages long, but in essence it comes down to 15 words that you lay out, "eat less, move more, eat lots of fruits and vegetables, go easy on junk foods." We all know those to be the case, right, so why aren't we doing that?
Ms. NESTLE: Because of $36 billion worth of effort to get people to eat in a completely different way. If you're in the food business, your job is to get people to eat your product rather than somebody else's or to eat more food in general. And it's not that food companies are trying to make people fat. That's not at all what they're doing.
They're just trying to sell their product in an extremely over-competitive marketplace and you have to have some sympathy for what they're doing, but as a parent or as somebody who's trying to eat healthfully, you're fighting the entire food system on your own. I'd like to see it easier for people to make healthy food choices.
BLOCK: And how would that happen?
Ms. NESTLE: Well you'd have to reconstruct a supermarket, for example, so that the healthier foods are placed in the most attractive and easy-to-see positions. You'd want to change pricing strategies and change government policies so that they make it cheaper to eat healthy foods rather than junk foods.
BLOCK: You have become over the years a kind of a lightning rod for criticism. I found this quote about you on a website called activistcash.com and I'm sure you've seen it too. They say Marion Nestle is one of the country's most hysterical anti-food industry fanatics.
Ms. NESTLE: Don't I sound hysterical? They, oh yes, these are groups that are sponsored by food industries and of course they're feeling very vulnerable. But what's interesting about the kinds of the statements that I'm making is that they are strongly supported by investment analysts. UBS Warburg, JP Morgan, Morgan Stanley and so forth, have issued reports on food marketing that warn food companies that if they don't change their practices to account for the concerns about marketing to children and concerns about childhood obesity, their products are going to be very vulnerable and so here's the investment companies telling them exactly what I'm telling them. I'm a voice of reason in all of this.
BLOCK: Marion Nestle, good to talk with you. Thanks very much.
Ms. NESTLE: My pleasure.
BLOCK: Marion Nestle's book is titled What To Eat. You can read an excerpt and hear more of our conversation about organic food at NPR.org.