Special Feature Series: “Changemakers”- Dr. Marion Nestle And Her Favorite Arugula Salad
A New Year and, with it, new ideas. This is my first post in what will be my special featured series this year titled “Changemakers.” Our country, our world actually, is a bit of a mess. The news these days seems to be riddled with political chaos, hatred, violence, and discrimination as well as a string of unexplainable natural disasters. It’s too much. I almost can’t read the daily headlines. But that’s not realistic or helpful. So, I’ve changed my approach. I’ve decided to focus on the good that exists all around us, which often goes unrecognized. And by good, I mean it’s important to recognize people who are striving to improve it or promote change positively. These people are changemakers.
This featured series will highlight some exemplary people who are working in different areas to inspire, achieve, create, teach, empower, and unite. Each post will talk a bit about who the person is, and why they are exemplary, at least in my eyes. These posts will also highlight a special personal recipe that the changemaker shared with me. As my mentor always said, food can unite people–as we all have to eat. I hope this inspires all of us to do a bit more good in our way.
Dr. Marion Nestle is my first featured changemaker. If you don’t know who she is, Nestle is a powerhouse American academic, consumer activist, and nutritionist who specializes in the politics of food and dietary choices. Nestle has been ahead of her time for decades. With a focus on examining scientific and socioeconomic influences on food choice, obesity, and food safety, Dr. Nestle is a pioneer in understanding the role of food marketing in dietary choices.
Nestle received her BA, PhD (in molecular biology), and MPH (in Public Health and Nutrition) from UC Berkeley. Her impressive resume includes stints as an associate dean for Human Biology and professor of nutrition at the UCSF School of Medicine; faculty positions at Brandeis, NYU, and Cornell; senior nutrition policy advisor in the Department of Health and Human Services; and editor of the 1988.
If that is not impressive enough, Nestle is also the author of nine award-winning books: Food Politics: How the Food Industry Influences Nutrition and Health; Safe Food: The Politics of Food Safety; Taking Sides: Clashing Views on Controversial Issues In Food and Nutrition; What to Eat; Why Calories Count: from Science to Politics; Eat, Drink Vote: An Illustrated Guide to Food Politics; and Soda Politics: Taking on Big Soda (and Winning). She also has written two books about pet food, Pet Food Politics: The Chihuahua in the Coal Mine and Feed Your Pet Right.
Nestle’s lists of awards, honors, and recognitions are just as impressive. Nestle’s radical and controversial vision of a new food world includes the notorious “Twinkie tax,” placing federal price controls on high-calorie foods and beverages, restricted advertising, print advertisements that warn consumers of calorie content and items that use genetically modified ingredients, and nutritional labeling on fast-food restaurant packages. She believes that “food is too cheap in this country”.
Nestle takes on the role of soda (and other surgery drinks) in health in her well-known book Soda Politics: Taking on Big Soda (and Winning), a subject she started to pay attention to back in the early 1990s. Nestle’s long-time concerns are now supported by overwhelming evidence showing how these sugary drinks contribute to higher calorie intake, weight gain, obesity, and type 2 diabetes and that stopping them is the “first line of defense against any of these conditions”.
In Nestle’s book Soda Politics: Taking on Big Soda (and Winning) she homes in on the soda industry’s marketing and corporate social responsibility tactics. Nestle discusses marketing to children, targeting people of color, and other steps that some companies take–from recruiting public health leaders to making political campaign contributions–to advance their agenda.
Nestle also goes on to suggest how health advocates can implement change by getting sodas out of schools, advocating for taxes on high-sugar beverages, limiting marketing directed to children, and excluding sodas from supplemental nutrition assistance program (SNAP) eligibility. Soda Politics: Taking on Big Soda (and Winning), to quote Nestle, “provides information, ideas for strategies, and resources for anyone who cares enough about the current dietary practices of adults and children to want to improve the environment of food choice”.
I had the opportunity to correspond with Dr. Nestle recently about her advocacy work and her thoughts on soda politics.
Simmer + Sauce: As a chef, I have to ask: what motivated you to become a food policy advocate?
Dr. Marion Nestle: It’s hard for individuals to make healthful food choices when the universe is trying to get them to buy junk foods. That’s why policies help. As a professor, I get to teach and write about issues that concern me. It seemed like an obvious way to help people improve their diets.
Simmer + Sauce: Why did you decide to focus on (and write an entire book) the advocacy for reducing soda consumption?
Dr. Marion Nestle: It came as a suggestion from my agent at exactly the right time. Anti-soda advocacy was expanding and sodas are an easy target—they are sugars and water and have no redeeming nutritional value. If you are worried about your weight, the first thing to do is to stop consuming sugary drinks. Lots of people lose weight easily doing nothing else. Also, soda sales were down in the U.S. The soda industry blames that on health advocacy and I’m not going to disagree with that idea.
Simmer + Sauce: You have drawn comparisons between big tobacco and big soda, can you elaborate further on their similarities?
Dr. Marion Nestle: Obviously, sodas are not cigarettes. Cigarettes are one product, demonstrably deadly, with one message: don’t smoke, and if you do smoke, stop. With food, the messages are more complicated: eat this instead of that or eat less in general. But the food industry follows the tobacco industry’s playbook to the letter: cast doubt on the science, fund your research, get scientists to help cast doubt, blame personal responsibility, invoke the nanny state, and put fortunes into fighting public health initiatives.
Simmer + Sauce: You speak extensively about your concern about how big soda companies are targeting their consumers, and the rise of obesity and diabetes. What is the general public overlooking here?
Dr. Marion Nestle: Advertising and marketing are not supposed to be noticeable. When they are working well, they slip below the radar of critical thinking. Soda companies have spent fortunes to convince people, especially young people, that sodas are cool, sexy, and fun. Coke and Pepsi are iconic American food products. It’s hard to believe that their primary goal is to sell products that aren’t good for people.
Simmer + Sauce: Your book gives health advocates suggestions on how to tackle several “soda politics” issues. How can this advocacy work improve?
Dr. Marion Nestle: Much has been written about how to do advocacy successfully. Mostly it involved setting clear goals, working with people you are trying to reach to develop strategies for achieving those goals, doing a lot of community outreach, having a clear “ask,” and going for it. When communities do food advocacy by the book, they succeed. That’s how Berkeley passed its soda tax, for example.
Simmer + Sauce: You imply we may be “winning” this war against soda companies, can you elaborate on how?
Dr. Marion Nestle: The bottom line is that soda sales have been declining steadily since about 2000. That’s a win.
Simmer + Sauce: You say in your book that “American advocates for children’s health are limited in what they can do to achieve more responsible advertising in general, and elimination of soda and junk food marketing aimed at children in particular”. What else can concerned parents do to protect their children and promote healthier food choices overall?
Dr. Marion Nestle: Parents can teach their kids media literacy—how to interpret media for what it is, marketing, not entertainment. Kids get that right away and can quickly be taught to understand that soda companies have only one purpose: to sell as many of their products as possible to as many people—kids—as possible.
Dr. Nestle, for all her thoughts on food and food politics, does not cook all that much! That is no surprise really: even in her semi-retirement, she is still extremely busy. Preferring to eat out, living in New York City makes this an easy go-to option. But Dr. Nestle did share with me one of her favorite salad combinations. So I developed this recipe in her honor. This simple, classic arugula salad with goat cheese, toasted hazelnuts, and balsamic vinaigrette is a lovely, balanced healthful salad that I think everyone will love.