Are consumers to blame for the rise in obesity across America? Or has Big Food confused our food choices and made the basic principles of healthy eating harder to follow? Where does Hawai‘i fit into dietary recommendations and environmental sustainability?
Award-winning author and New York University professor emerita Marion Nestle visited the University of Hawaiʻi Mānoa campus on November 7 to offer her research findings on the parallels between processed-food profits, big-budget marketing, and consumer behavior over the last 50 years.
Held at John F. Kennedy Theatre, “What to Eat: Dietary Advice Meets Food Politics” was sponsored by CTAHR, the Hawai‘i Culinary Education Foundation, and University of Hawai‘i West O‘ahu’s Sustainable Community Food Systems Program.
Nestle began with a simple premise for healthy living: Eat Better, Eat Less, Move More. That’s not what most Americans are doing. The average restaurant meal today is more than four times larger than in the 1950s. The American consumer’s everyday access to calories has almost doubled. The cost of fresh fruits and vegetables in comparison to processed foods has tripled.
The role of corporate processors has grown accordingly, yet public perception is that personal lifestyle and social markers—not the food industry—determine our eating habits. This isn’t a coincidence, Nestle posits. Big Food simply copied Big Tobacco’s techniques, skewing public opinion by influencing scientists and policymakers. In one example, 26 studies found no link between sugary drinks and obesity or type 2 diabetes. Yet, 25 of those studies were funded by the soft drink industry.
Although not an expert on Hawai‘i’s agriculture or nutrition, Nestle has data indicating that our reported low rate of food insecurity may not reflect reality. To encourage eating more fruits and vegetables by consumers, as well as stabilize income for local growers, she suggests taking a page from Brazil’s playbook. Lawmakers there, responding to public pressure, have limited processed foods and incentivized shopping for minimally processed foods.