In her latest book, What to Eat, nutrition and health expert Marion Nestle helps consumers navigate the grocery store—decoding cryptic labels and ingredients lists, and revealing hidden health concerns. She shares her thoughts on eco labels, food scares and how to eat healthier.
“Green.” “Grass-fed.” “Natural.” It seems harder than ever for consumers to understand eco labels on food. Are there any general rules governing how and when food marketers can use such labels?
Rules? Not a one. Anyone can put any kind of eco label on a product. When I was doing the research for What to Eat, I spent a lot of time on the computer looking up the certification criteria for what seemed like dozens of labels: fair trade, rainforest, shade grown, and bird friendly, not to mention natural, organic, no-antibiotics, no-hormones, cage-free, grass-fed, and all the rest.
Each of these groups sets its own rules. With the exception of organic, which for all its flaws does have a government agency behind it, you have to trust the labels are honest and honestly monitored.
Where do the food movement and the environmental movement intersect?
They may be two separate movements, but they are both part of the overall social movement toward a food system that is healthier for people and the planet. How we grow food has enormous effects on the environment-climate change as well as pollution of air, water, and soil.
Healthy, sustainable food production methods give us food that is nutritionally better and with fewer pesticides, antibiotics, and hormones. Even if the research can’t prove that pesticides, antibiotics, and hormones are bad for us, it’s hard to believe that they are good for our health or that of the animals we eat.
How can we eat in a carbon-conscious way?
I find the assumptions behind evaluations of carbon footprints to be difficult to evaluate but it seems pretty obvious that eating locally and low on the food chain makes sense in this context. This means eating less meat and less processed food. And drinking tap water, of course.
What are your thoughts about all the recent food scares?
Each one of them, from pet food to tomatoes, is further evidence of the need for a single food safety agency, one that combines the functions of the FDA, the Centers for Disease Control, and the USDA into one unified oversight entity. The Government Accountability Office has been warning for years that if we don’t do this, the incidents will become more frequent and will get worse.
The tomato outbreak is a perfect example. Two agencies working at cross purposes can’t even figure out whether tomatoes are causing the trouble or some other food. In the meantime, more than 800 people have gotten sick.
What is your favorite food vice?
I don’t define anything I eat as a vice. I follow my own advice: eat less, move more, eat lots of fruits, vegetables, and grains, and don’t eat too much junk food. It leaves plenty of flexibility for eating an occasional junk food.
Marion Nestle is the Paulette Goddard Professor of Nutrition, Food Studies, and Public Health at New York University. Her latest book, What to Eat, is an encyclopedic reference of grocery store foods.