Review of Unsavory Truth: How Food Companies Skew the Science of What We Eat by Marion Nestle
Unsavory Truth: How Food Companies Skew the Science of What We Eat
by Marion Nestle
I’ve been intrigued by food science for a while. We have all at one point or another tried some kind of fad, whether it’s a specific diet or overloading on a superfood or something like that, I’m sure. Some of us fall harder than others. The more I tried to research and understand nutrition and food science for myself, the more I realized that a lot of food science is junk science. I wanted to know why, and that led me to the two realities that Marion Nestle confronts in Unsavory Truth. So picking up her book for more details on these issues with food science was a no-brainer!
Nestle takes us through several examples of ways in which food companies skew the science, as the subtitle says. This book is a mixture of topics. She gives us some history lessons on how nutrition and food science departments came about in the United States after food companies shuttered their own research wings. Similarly, she traces the development of important industry lobbyist groups and how these interact with government departments like the Food and Drug Administration. Nestle also tries to point out the accurate science where she can, reminding us that a lot of the science is complex and it’s not so much that we don’t know anything about nutrition (I hope my mention of junk science in the first paragraph didn’t give this impression) but rather, food companies are always interested in simplifying and removing nuances because they care more about marketing than health. Finally, Nestle rigorously explores how we might fund nutritional research if we don’t want to be beholden to industry funds and the biases that accompany them.
From this book and others, I’ve come to understand why food science is difficult even without industry funding bias. Basically, you can’t run the same kinds of clinical trials in food science that you would in other scientific disciplines, because—believe it or not—it’s unethical to do things that might starve or malnourish a human being or potentially cause a disease like cancer. So experiments in food science are very difficult, and as Nestle explains, most of what we know about nutrition comes instead from qualitative observations that are subject to error bars relating to participants’ lifestyles, genetics, etc.
Probably the most useful “truth” that Nestle reminds us of is that it is never about one particular food or nutrient. All those commercials when I was a kid about eating eggs for “omega-3 fatty acids”? All the hype about why it’s fat or sugar or carbs that are bad for you this week? That’s marketing. Really, the best thing we can do for our bodies is to practise moderation. Nestle acknowledges that some substances (like processed sugars) are objectively harmful, but she isn’t here to preach a sugar-less diet. Instead, she just points out that if we are indeed mature, responsible adults, we should be able to balance our food intake accordingly. I kind of wish she had mentioned that this is often a problem for low-income households, where there is probably less of a choice between processed foods and more “natural” products.
So, overall, Nestle does a good job elucidating the essential conflict of interest between food companies and food/nutrition science. Food companies want to sell their product, so naturally they want research that supports recommendations favourable to their product. In contrast, nutrition science is more about building a body of knowledge that allows us to give advice to people about how to ensure they have a healthy body. Given this conflict of interest, Nestle explains that when a food company offers funding for a specific study, that introduces the potential for bias. She spends a lot of time explaining this, adding that many scientists refuse to accept the potential for bias exists, which frankly boggles my mind.
From there, Nestle explores other ways that food companies influence the research. These parts of the book get somewhat technical and are very U.S.-centric. That doesn’t make them irrelevant to other countries—Canada definitely has similar issues, particularly with our dairy lobbyists, and in general the U.S. sets a tone for a lot of the world. However, if you’re not really involved in this sector, some of the details that Nestle recounts will feel extraneous or more than you bargained for. Indeed, my main issue with the way the book is written and edited would be that it feels, in some places, repetitive. I understand wanting to build an exhaustive body of evidence to support your claim, but after a while, all the discussions of arm’s length groups, foundations, checkoff programs, etc., just kind of blurred together in my head.
This was an informative book, and if you are interested more in policy around food and nutrition research, I’d recommend it. If you’re interested more in the science behind food and nutrition, you might not find what you are looking for here.