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Marion Nestle addresses the crowd at her November 7 lecture on the growing public health crisis

Award-winning author and New York University Professor Emerita Marion Nestle visited the University of Hawaiʻi at 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.

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.

Held at Kennedy Theatre, “What to Eat: Dietary Advice Meets Food Politics” was sponsored by UH Mānoa’s College of Tropical Agriculture and Human Resources (CTAHR), the Hawaiʻi Culinary Education Foundation, and University of Hawaiʻi–West Oʻahu’s Sustainable Community Food Systems Program.

Who is responsible for the rise in obesity in America?

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Audience members at Marion Nestle’s November 7 lecture

Nestle addressed the following questions: Are consumers to blame for the rise in obesity across America? Or has Big Food, the multinational food and beverage industry with huge and concentrated market power, confused our food choices and made the basic principles of healthy eating harder to follow? Where does Hawaiʻi fit into dietary recommendations and environmental sustainability?

The role of corporate processors has grown accordingly, yet public perception is that personal lifestyle and social markers—not the food industry—determine one’s eating habits. This isn’t a coincidence, Nestle posits. She goes on to add that Big Food simply took a page from Big Tobacco’s playbook, 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.

Food systems approach

“The three most important public health nutrition problems facing the world today are food insecurity, obesity and its consequent chronic diseases like type 2 diabetes and heart disease–and the effects of food production and consumption on the environment and climate—all of them are due to dysfunctional food systems,” said Nestle. “If we want to address these problems effectively, we have to use a food systems approach, which means thinking about agricultural production whenever we talk about what people eat, and vice versa.”

Said Logan Taylor Motas, a CTAHR undergraduate who attended the talk, “I learned about the complexity of food politics, and how I should be doing my own research on the things I’m eating. Marion Nestle was a strong force of goodness that inspired me to be in control of what I put in my body.”

Although not an expert on Hawaiʻi’s agriculture or nutrition, Nestle says she is impressed by how this state exemplifies these three food system problems. “Hawaiʻi’s reported low rate of food insecurity may not reflect reality,” she says. To encourage eating more fruits and vegetables by consumers, as well as stabilize income for local growers, she suggests taking a page from Latin America’s playbook. Lawmakers in Chile, responding to public pressure, have limited processed foods and incentivized shopping for minimally processed foods.