The Melanie Avalon Biohacking Podcast Episode #199 - Marion Nestle
Marion Nestle is Paulette Goddard Professor of Nutrition, Food Studies, and Public Health, Emerita, at New York University, in the department she chaired from 1988-2003 and from which she retired in September 2017. She is also Visiting Professor of Nutritional Sciences at Cornell. She holds honorary degrees from Transylvania University in Kentucky and the Macaulay Honors College of the City University of New York.
She earned a Ph.D. in molecular biology and an M.P.H. in public health nutrition from the University of California, Berkeley. Previous faculty positions were at Brandeis University and the UCSF School of Medicine. From 1986-88, she was senior nutrition policy advisor in the Department of Health and Human Services and editor of the 1988 Surgeon General’s Report on Nutrition and Health. Her research and writing examine scientific and socioeconomic influences on food choice and its consequences, emphasizing the role of food industry marketing.
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The Book writing process; marion's memoir
coming of age when women weren't allows to have ambition
getting a fellowship as a mother with small children
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sacrificing a science career for her children
inequalities and coming from a poor family
the wage gap between genders
being the whistleblower
how the food industry has reacted to her books
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social media and coca-cola branding
funded research bias & marketing science
intermittent fasting & skipping breakfast
health claims on cereal boxes
determining dietary guidelines
the first thiamin study
how do you really compare diets?
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The Melanie Avalon Biohacking Podcast Episode #38 - Connie Zack
The Science Of Sauna: Heat Shock Proteins, Heart Health, Chronic Pain, Detox, Weight Loss, Immunity, Traditional Vs. Infrared, And More!
Melanie Avalon: Hi, friends. Welcome back to the show. I am so incredibly excited about the conversation that I am about to have. It is with a legend and I do not use that word lightly. So, the backstory behind today's conversation, I am good friends with Jon Levy, who I've had on the show, and he has this-- the thing that he does where he introduces me to the coolest people in the whole world. He said that, "I simply had to have Marion Nestle on the show because her memoir was coming out." I was super excited and I dove deep into her work and friends, this woman, I am so excited to be talking to her today. She has done so much in something I am really, really passionate about, which is basically the role of government and industry, like the commercial food industry and regulation. And how all of that affects how food manifest to us as consumers as far as our nutrition choices, the concept of food science versus nutrition science. And she's been doing this for years. [laughs] She actually has 15 books, which is crazy. So, I read her new memoir, which came out in 2022 called Slow Cooked: An Unexpected Life in Food Politics. I went back and read her big foundational book which is called Food Politics: How the Food Industry Influences Nutrition and Health and then I also read Unsavory Truth: How Food Companies Skew the Science of What We Eat. Like I said, she has 15 books, so it goes even much farther [chuckles] beyond that.
Marion is Paulette Goddard Professor of Nutrition, Food Studies, and Public Health, Emerita, at NYU, in the department she chaired from 1988 to 2003 and she retired in September 2017. She's a visiting professor of Nutritional Sciences at Cornell. She has honorary degrees from multiple universities. She has a Ph.D. in molecular biology and MPH in public health nutrition. But beyond that, she has done so much in our world. What did Time call you? One of the most influential--
Marion Nestle: I think Twitter followers or something like that. [laughs]
Melanie Avalon: I don't know if you've used the new AI chat things. Have you seen those where you ask it questions?
Marion Nestle: I've looked at it and I asked it to help me with some homework I was doing. It wasn't very good at it.
Melanie Avalon: With some homework. [laughs] Oh, my goodness, it's so funny.
Marion Nestle: I followed what the New York Times has done where this ChatBot tried to break up this guy's marriage. I mean, it was really incredible story.
Melanie Avalon: I was reading about that last night. It blew my mind. [chuckles] I was like, "What is happening?" [laughs]
Marion Nestle: Yeah. It's pretty terrifying. I'd rather stick to food.
Melanie Avalon: Yeah. No, I love that. Well, I was asking it about you. [laughs] I was curious what it was going to say.
Marion Nestle: Oh, and what did it say?
Melanie Avalon: I don't have it right in front of me. But it was all very flattering. It was a very impressive bio and it did mention Time calling you one of the most influential people in, I think, science and medicine. I asked it what questions I should ask you, [laughs] and it gave me like, 10 really deep questions. [laughs] My favorite, it said I should ask you-- oh, by the way, I did a lot of prep, though. I have my own questions, but I was just curious. [laughs]
Marion Nestle: This is hilarious. [laughs]
Melanie Avalon: Let's see. It said I should ask you, "What are some of the most promising areas of research and nutrition science today, and what new discoveries or insights do you find particularly exciting or impactful?" I thought that was a good question.
Marion Nestle: I think I'm going to like yours better.
Melanie Avalon: Okay. [laughs] They were all very formulaic, but in any case, we're on tangent.
Marion Nestle: Well, it's so interesting because that's the kind of question that somebody would ask who hasn't read my book.
Melanie Avalon: Exactly.
Marion Nestle: Or is unfamiliar. I have to tell you, "I'm so grateful to you for actually having read some of it." It's very unusual to talk to interviewers who've actually read the book. It makes for a much better interview, I think. So, I would say that ChatBot didn't read the book, I can tell.
Melanie Avalon: I'm guessing not. [laughs] Oh, my goodness, that's so funny. Well, in any case, so the first question, I normally ask all the guests on this show is really going to be the topic of the whole show. Tell me about your backstory and what led you to where we are today. Instead of that question, because I know we will dive all into that all throughout this episode. I think something I will start with is it's kind of a two-part question. I'm really curious when you sat down to write your memoir, because you talk in your memoir about your book writing experience and what that's been like writing all of your other books. And I've written a book as well, but nothing on the level of what you've done. But it was really exciting to read about your book writing process and how you approach that and how you never anticipated really going that route, and it never really occurred to you that you could write a book. [laughs] In any case, writing the memoir, when you sat down to write that, did you immediately have the themes of your life evident to you or did it really take some time to think back and then those kinds of came up going through that. For example, Michael Pollan called you the number two foodie in America, which is super cool. But reading your book, I don't really get this. I mean, "Are you a foodie?" I don't really get the sense that you're-- do you identify as a foodie?
Marion Nestle: Absolutely. I love food. [chuckles] Absolutely love it and that's what motivated me right from the beginning, was I just adored everything about food from growing it and especially eating it. I would absolutely self-identify as a foodie. I know a lot of people don't like the term, but I think it works.
Melanie Avalon: Okay, awesome. I guess what I was thinking about is when I was reading everything about you and your relationship with food, here's how I'll step back from this. I love food. It's, like, my favorite thing as well. I'm all into whole foods. I adore it. People have called me a foodie, but I felt like I'm not really a foodie, because when I think foodie, I think of people that go to these restaurants and order really intense courses. I feel like it involves more of industry, I guess, than just enjoying natural, real, whole food.
Marion Nestle: No, I actually define it in the book. Because there was a foodie's handbook that came out, I don't know, really a long time ago, and I ran across a copy of it. It has a definition, a foodie is somebody who really, really, really likes food.
Melanie Avalon: Then we are foodies. So, when you did write the book, did you anticipate the themes that we're going to materialize with everything that you experienced in your life?
Marion Nestle: Absolutely not. I wrote the book because it was a pandemic project and I was cut off. I usually write nonfiction books. I refer to this as my first book of fiction because it's about memory. It's not about facts that you can research and look up. There are very few references in this book. Most of the books I write are extensively referenced nonfiction books about food or about food politics. I couldn't do that because all those sources, the libraries were closed, my office was closed. The sources of all my materials I didn't have access to. I thought, "Okay, this is an opportunity." I have to look at this as an opportunity. I'm sequestered upstate New York with my partner who lives in Ithaca, New York, and I might as maybe this is a good time to deal with the questions that I get asked all the time.
How did you get interested in food? Do you consider yourself a foodie? What do you think are the most important research questions? I mean, all of those kinds of questions that I get asked all the time by students and reporters, and people who interview me. They want to know how I got started, how I feel about what I do and what I think its impact is. Those are not necessarily very easy questions to answer. I had the time and I had the space to deal with it and I sat down to I don't know I worked with my agent about getting a contract for it published by University of California Press. It's my 6th book with that press and it's an academic press and this is the first memoir that they've done in their food series. So, none of us knew how this was going to work out.
I started out in the middle. I did something I don't usually do with books. I started out in the middle and I wrote one of the middle chapters because it was the one that I thought really needed the most explaining. It was the chapter about when I was associate dean at the University of California, San Francisco. I had a really rough time during my 10 years there, in part because I had gotten the job as an accompanying spouse. At the time I didn't know, I didn't really understand what a handicap that was and how I was going to be viewed as an accompanying spouse and not having an independent way of dealing with that university. So, I laid out what that was like, what it felt like, the kinds of problems that I had with it, some of the incidents that occurred that in retrospect seemed very poignant and were certainly painful at the time.
When I finished the chapter, I realized I was writing a chapter about what it was like to be a woman in academia in what was then the 1970s and 80s. That of course went back to my childhood and my growing up. I came of age in the 1950s [chuckles] and things for women were really different then, very, very different from what they are now. The expectation was that you didn't have ambitions because you were going to get married and have children and that was what you were going to do. And if you were going to work, it would be to support your husband's business. I tell the story about my three closest friends in the high school had as their lifetime ambition to marry a professor, a doctor and a rabbi respectively. And they all did. That's what they did. I didn't even have the confidence or the agency to be able to figure out what I wanted to do because I didn't think I had any options. A lot of what happened, happened because I was trying to make the best of whatever situation I had gotten myself into. A lot of what I describe in the book is just the accident of persistence that if you persist in working towards what you think is the right thing to do, sometimes you can make real progress and get somewhere. The book is called Slow Cooked because it took me a really, really, really long time to figure it all out.
Melanie Avalon: Wow. I love that. This is a personal passion topic of mine, so I was thrilled to read about it in the book, everything that you just spoke about. For example, I'm in awe and shocked that you did everything that you did while raising a family, being a wife and a mother. For me personally, I've always felt haunted feeling like I couldn't have kids [chuckles] and do my career and that's now in our modern life. Doing it when you did it is absolutely incredible. Like, you talk about how when you got the NIH training grant fellowship, they literally told you that you only got it because no men applied. Is that correct?
Marion Nestle: Yeah. When I went to graduate school in molecular biology, which I did, because I had a crush on a professor who in a class I had taken as an undergraduate, and I thought he was just the most genius man I had ever seen. He was in the department of molecular biology, and I thought if he was in that department, that was going to be the most intellectually exciting place I could possibly go without really thinking about whether I was going to like it or not or be good at it. The graduate advisor for my intake interview said, we're going to give you this fellowship because we've got this training grant for doctoral students, but we don't usually give them to women. [laughs] If men apply next year, I can't guarantee you that you're going to get this. Well, as it happened, men did apply next year, but I continued my training grant. I mean, I got good grades in classes.
It was the one thing I really knew how to do when I was young. I'm sure that that man who I was friends with until he died in his mid-90s would deny that he ever said that because he was actually a great champion of students. Once they got used to the idea that there were going to be women around, they kind of liked it so it was all right. But what it did was it made me feel like, "Well, nobody is going to take me seriously." So maybe this isn't such a serious thing. I don't know. I mean, I certainly did well enough in my graduate work so that I got my degree. I had two small children while I was going to graduate school. That was challenging, to say the least and I really don't know how I did it. I just did it day by day. Of course, it was much easier to find babysitters then, and a stipend of a couple of $100 a month would pay for your babysitter, which isn't possible now. In some ways, that strange era when it was really tough for women to do anything out of the home was in some ways easier than it is now, incredible as that seems.
Melanie Avalon: What's also interesting is, so you clearly had this idea of being potentially disadvantaged as a female, but then you didn't even realize for a while just how much you were disadvantaged because you talk about your swimming pool epiphany where you came or I guess I can let you tell the story. Basically, you realized that you were even a little bit farther behind than you thought as far as keeping up with everybody.
Marion Nestle: Oh, it was, yeah, I call it the swimming pool epiphany because I was then a postdoctoral fellow in the biology department at Brandeis University. Brandeis had a perk for faculty where they offered swimming lessons to children of faculty and graduate students on Saturday morning and my kids were taking swimming lessons. One day, there was a double lesson. So, they were going to be in the pool for 2 hours. I thought, "Great, I'll run to my lab and see if I can get some work done while my kids are in the pool." The great thing is, there won't be anybody there because it's Saturday morning, there won't be anybody there. [chuckles] So, I walk into my lab and everybody was there and I mean everybody. The lab director, his wife, the lab technician, the doctoral students, the undergraduate helpers, the postdoc, everybody in the lab was there except me.
I mean, people looked a little surprised when I walked in, but I instantly knew that this was why everybody was treating me as if I wasn't getting any work done. I thought, "This is why I'm not getting any work done." Even if I had wanted to be there on a Saturday morning, there was no way in the world I could have done it. I didn't have babysitting options. I was having a hard enough time in the Boston area trying to get my kids taken care of during the day, during the week, after school. I mean, they were in grammar school by then, but there was no-- My husband at the time had his own lab career and we both agreed that his lab career was more important than mine. He was at Harvard and he had an assistant professorship. I was just a postdoc, so I was part of a system and I bought into that system and my scientific career ended that day. That was the end.
The reality was that there was no way in the world I could have a lab science career and have two kids at the same time. There may have been people who could do it, and I have subsequently met women who were able to manage very important lab careers with children, but they came from very different backgrounds than I did. They came from academic backgrounds where they had a lot of support, they had mentors, they had traveled a lot. They knew how the game was played. I mean, they were much, much, much more sophisticated about what an academic career was about than I was. I just knew there was no way I could do it. That was the end. I took teaching jobs from then on.
Melanie Avalon: Do you remember the immediate feeling you had when you walked in that room?
Marion Nestle: It was a reality check. It was confronting me just straight in the face, you cannot do this. This cannot be done. Because everybody was there on Saturday, I couldn't do it. Everybody was there at night, I couldn't do that either. I had kids to take care of and I was responsible for them. It was a second marriage. They were my kids. I was responsible for them. Either, I was going to neglect my children terribly, which I didn't feel very good about doing, or I was going to do the best I can and take some other kind of job that didn't require those kinds of hours. And I had options. I had an offer of another postdoctoral fellowship with a lab director who later went on to win a Nobel Prize. I was moving in pretty fancy scientific circles at the time, but I just couldn't do it. My husband at the time said, "You don't want to work 22 hours a day." He could work 22 hours a day, but I couldn't. That was the reality. It ended up okay. That's all I can say.
Melanie Avalon: If you grew up like now and had that same experience where it possibly was possible, do you think you would have gone more of that clinical science route or do you think that wasn't your true calling or passion anyways?
Marion Nestle: Well, I don't know. I had ideas about medical school, going to med. I mean, I had very good instincts, and I thought really what I should do is go to medical school. Medical schools weren't taking women in those days and it was a really big deal to do it. And again, I had two small children. How was I going to do all that? I couldn't do it. That was one thought. The scientific route, I tell the story in the book of meeting a woman with a Nobel Prize. Actually, not all that long ago, just before the pandemic hit, I was at a meeting in Chile and met this woman who has a Nobel Prize and she was telling me about her life. We were comparing notes. We were on a small side trip. And she came from an academic family. She came from a family in which there was lots and lots of support for doing academics. She had lots of experience working in labs and working with people. When she had children, she had babysitters full time who could take care of her kids. She could go right back to the lab. I'm not in any way minimizing the difficulties in her own life, because she had plenty of them. But she came from a different class than I did.
I came from a very poor family and just didn't even know these kinds of opportunities existed. It really makes me understand when they talk about inequalities and the difficulty that people from poor backgrounds have. I have a lot of sympathy for that, because that was my situation as well. I just didn't know what the options were, let alone whether I could do them or not, which was another matter, and I didn't have in my life. People saying, "Of course you can do that, [laughs] or why don't you try it?" If you fail, you fail but at least try it. And I tell that story too when I was applying to colleges. Again, I had very good instincts and I applied to lots of fancy private schools on the East Coast. I was in California at the time, and nobody said to me, "Go ahead and apply." The worst thing that can happen is that you won't get in. If you do get in, you can figure out whether they're going to give you scholarships and you can pay for it or not, but at least give them the opportunity to offer it to you, which is the kind of thing that I would tell students now who were applying above what they thought, what their pay grade was. I had nobody in my life who was encouraging in that way, so I ended up not applying. I did apply to Stanford and I tell the story about what happened there, but it was just a different time. I think if you come from a background in which the kinds of things that you want to do are acceptable and accepted and understood and everybody knows how the game is played, it's an enormous advantage. I didn't have that.
Melanie Avalon: I don't think it can be underestimated. It's epigenetics and genetics, like, the profound role of epigenetics on our life choices. Yeah, because growing up, for me--
Marion Nestle: Whole family.
Melanie Avalon: Mm-hmm. Yeah, because I was always really really supported, which I do not take for granted. But the mentality was, you can do anything. I just think that's so key. I have a really random question about your family, because when you talk in the beginning of the book about growing up, you said your dad owned a theater in Hollywood or ran a theater in Hollywood.
Marion Nestle: Yeah. He ran a theater.
Melanie Avalon: A movie theater or a live theater?
Marion Nestle: No, no, no, a live theater. It was the first one in Hollywood and he was brought out to manage it. It didn't last long. Well, we're talking about the late 1940s here.
Melanie Avalon: This is so cool. [laughs]
Marion Nestle: This was a long time ago. Yeah. He was brought out to run the first legitimate stage theater in Hollywood and it turned out not to work out very well. In any case, he died a year later. So, whatever happened to it? I don't know what happened to it. It doesn't exist anymore. I don't remember the details of it except that I met Bob Hope [chuckles] at some performance, but he had a tough life and he died at 47. He was a very heavy man. He was about 5'8" and weighed 350 pounds, was a three-pack-a-day smoker, and had what we would now say are multiple risk factors for coronary artery disease. Did that get me interested in nutrition and health? Undoubtedly, yes.
Melanie Avalon: It's interesting because, not to make stereotypes, but when you think of people in the arts or theater, you think of a more thinking outside of the box type of personality. I might assume that that type of family would be something more supportive of thinking outside of the box, but it sounds like it's much more, that's making a huge generalization.
Marion Nestle: Yeah. It didn't work in my case. In any case, my father wasn't around much because he and my mother didn't get along very well, so he dealt with it by just not being around. So, families are complicated.
Melanie Avalon: Yeah. Definitely, another question about the issues that you did experience as a female. What happened? Because you tell the story of the wage gap epiphany and realizing the differences in the wages [chuckles] and how you chose to go about that and not going the court route and everything. I was just wondering if you could tell listeners a little bit about that experience.
Marion Nestle: Yeah. I was a lecturer at Brandeis after the swimming pool epiphany. I stayed on at Brandeis in a teaching position and I had a title of lecturer. I was teaching several courses a semester. Brandeis hired a guy to do the same job that I was doing, teaching other courses. But he was at the same level I was and he was somebody I knew. I was really pretty excited about his coming. One night, I get a telephone call from a friend of mine who lived in Boston and she said, "Guess what my consciousness-raising group discussed last night or tonight." I knew she was in a consciousness-raising group in Boston. These were groups in which women got together to talk about how they were discriminated against and what to do about it. I had no idea what her group was talking about. She said, "We're discussing your salary at Brandeis."
I said, how is this possible? How could you possibly be talking about my salary at Brandeis? They said, "Well, the girlfriend of this guy who was just hired is in the group and he's being paid a lot more than you're being paid." He was told by your department chair not to talk about it. She brought that issue to the group and we all agree that you should be told. [laughs] So it was an astonishing difference. It was a third difference. I was being paid $8,000 a year and he was getting $12000 or was it-- Yeah, it was something like that. The next day I went to see him and asked him if it would be okay if I took it up with the department chair and he agreed. He was a good guy. [chuckles] I went to talk to the department chair about it and the department chair went ballistic. It's a private university, salaries are secret, we don't discuss salaries, other people's salaries are none of your business. Besides, he and his girlfriend are planning to get married and have children and he's going to need more money. I already have two children, yes, but you're married and then ooh.
Actually, I may have been married at the time, I can't remember. But anyway, so I just said, "I think this is a women's issue and this is a big deal right now." I just want you to know that I don't want to make a case of this. I don't want to take it to court. I don't want to take it to the affirmative action committee. I don't want to do anything about it. I just want you to fix it. [onomatopoeia]. So, I spent a year saying that over and over and over again, gradually being moved from one department chair to another, eventually to a low-level dean, and then to a higher-level dean and then to a vice president. And finally, it took a year at the end of the year, they raised my salary, and they raised it $500 a year more than the other guy's salary. [laughs] So, I ended up feeling-- and part of it was I was absolutely telling the truth. This was absolutely true. I did not want to make a case of it because I knew that people who fought departments or who fought their universities over matters like this lost jobs and never gotten other jobs. They were troublemakers, nobody would ever hire them.
I absolutely didn't want anything like that to ever happen. So, when I was saying that, "I didn't want to take it to court or didn't want to take it to the affirmative action committee, I knew I'd win." Because this was just the time when women were filing cases at universities and winning. They were winning and I had an airtight case. Airtight case because were doing exactly the same job, except that I had been there a year longer than he had, and we had the same credentials, almost identical credentials. So, I knew I would win. And I did eventually. I considered that a great achievement, but it sure took a long time and it took a lot of patience.
Melanie Avalon: And that's so interesting. It's actually a common theme not wanting to be the whistleblower, because you experienced that when you were writing food politics. You couldn't get anybody to go on the record about anything from the government side of things.
Marion Nestle: Right. Nobody wants to talk to you if you're writing about sensitive issues, and nobody wants to be in the position of telling on their boss or doing that kind of thing. It just doesn't go over well. There are laws that protect whistleblowers, but they don't work very well. So, it wasn't a position that I wanted to be in and I came out of it pretty well. I mean, people thought I had handled it beautifully, so that was good. And then I had more money which was also good. I needed it.
Melanie Avalon: Have you experienced anything else like that throughout your life where there was something whistleblowing nature for you? Were you wondering if you should talk about it or not?
Marion Nestle: Well. [laughs] I just posted a blog post about the International Life Sciences Institute, which apparently has sent somebody to track the press reactions to my book, Unsavory Truth, and somebody I know was going to discuss this in a book and sent me the excerpt and gave me permission to post it on my website. I think a lot of things have come up that I didn't know about. Somebody once told me that they were hired to read all of my books. You should get paid for doing what you just did. They were hired to read all my books and then help the companies develop position papers to refute the arguments in my book. I thought that was kind of amazing, but it never occurred to me that people could get paid to read my books. [chuckles]
Melanie Avalon: Wow. Talking about such sensitive topics and especially talking about things and we haven't even talked to you yet on this show about this, but you've done so much work surrounding information about government policy, like the Food Pyramid and the Surgeon's General report that you worked on, and dietary guidelines and things like that. Were you ever scared that people would want to take you out?
Marion Nestle: No. It's odd. I don't know what goes on behind the scenes, but to my face, I've always been treated very respectfully by food companies. They invite me to talk to their executives. They invite me to meetings. It's always been extremely, if not friendly, at least cordial, and I think very respectful. So, with the exception of things that happened right at the beginning when my book Food Politics came out and somebody organized a campaign to write really nasty reviews on Amazon of the book, which is a story I tell in the new edition of Food Politics and repeat it in the memoir. But besides that, there's really been very little. The Sugar Association once threatened a lawsuit.
Melanie Avalon: Could you tell listeners about that story?
Marion Nestle: It's such a funny story, such a funny story. When Food Politics came out, I was doing radio interviews, and I must have said on some radio interview that the first thing you should do if you want to lose weight is stop drinking sugar sweetened sodas, because sodas have sugar and water and nothing else of nutritional value. The Sugar Association, which represents the growers of sugarcane and sugar beets, their lawyer wrote me a letter saying, "You defamed sugar, you hurt sugar's feelings, and if you don't cease and desist, we're going to sue you. Because you of all people should know that soft drinks don't contain sugar, they contain high fructose corn syrup." Well, I thought that was the funniest thing I'd ever heard. I mean I just couldn't stop laughing because high fructose corn syrup is sugar. It's glucose and fructose in solution whereas table sugar sucrose is glucose and fructose stuck together, but very quickly separated.
So, physiologically there's really no difference, but they're represented by two different trade associations. The Corn Refiners Association represents high fructose corn syrup and the Sugar Association represents corn and beet producers. So, this got into politics. I thought it was hilarious and I talked about it in every-- I mean, I did write, I was warned by people that I needed to write very, very careful rebuttal letters to deal with every single point that was made in the Sugar Association's letter. And I did that. But I also talked about it in every talk I was giving in those days because I thought it was really funny. It's two different trade associations. That has nothing to do with science, really, but it's about politics. That was the last time and I haven't gotten those kinds of threatening things ever since then. I was trolled for a while on my blog, particularly by pro-- people who really support genetically modified foods. There must have been an organized campaign to troll my website. And I had to stop taking comments on the blog as a result because it was so difficult to deal with, then I just stopped comments. So that was too bad. Had to do it. But other than that, it's really been pretty quiet and I don't hear about things unless people tell me.
Melanie Avalon: Gotcha. Wow, well, you handled that really well. I would have been really stressed with the lawsuit thing.
Marion Nestle: No. It's politics. If you write a book called Food Politics, you've got to expect that you're going to get political pushback. I do try not to take it personally. I had a lot of trouble with the trolling I have to say, because the trolling was extremely personal and the trolling commented on my age, my ethnicity. They tried to organize a campaign to get me fired at NYU. I discussed it with my dean. My dean thought it was hilariously funny. He had the same reaction. So, all you can do, you have to laugh this stuff off and not take it personally. To the extent that I don't take it personally, things go much better.
Melanie Avalon: That makes sense because it's one thing if people are just, "objectively" attacking or debating the information you're providing, but when it does enter the personal realm, which I experienced that as well because people say, "I'm blonde and dumb and too thin and all this stuff." It's like, "How do you respond to that?" So, it must be really interesting for you having done this work for so long and way before social media. I mean, have you seen major changes? Like, what have you seen in changes in the industry as far as the role of social media, I guess with that and then also just the experience of food with social media because there's the whole food porn world and I'm sure industry uses social media to its advantage.
Marion Nestle: Oh, absolutely. Advertising, I just saw something where Coca Cola is going to be using ChatBots to personalize nutrition messages on social media, and yeah, of course they're going to do that. To the extent that they can personalize, things get much better for them. They sell more products, they hire dietitians, they hire nutritionists, they hire kids. They do all kinds of things to try to generate interest in their brands. This is brand promotion. It's quite successful.
Melanie Avalon: It's something I've thought about for a long time. Well, first of all, stepping back, just thinking about the branding of a company and how influential that is on consumers. Like growing up, I was obsessed with Coca Cola just in general, the drink, but, like, Coca Cola merchandise-- like all the vintage posters and signs, like, I had a Coke collection. And it's interesting thinking about that now. That was me literally not even consuming the Coke, which I was but it was me taking this brand of Coke and just liking it as a brand and like, having a collection.
Marion Nestle: They market very successfully. Very successfully.
Melanie Avalon: It was intense.
Marion Nestle: I've got a Barbie doll, if the truth be known.
Melanie Avalon: A Coca Cola Barbie doll.
Marion Nestle: Absolutely.
Melanie Avalon: Nice. Yeah. I actually had, like, a moment in my life where because I did become really interested in health and wellness and concerned with the processed food industry, and I was like, "What do I do with my Coke collection?" [laughs] It's so sentimental to me, but I'm, like, "Not a fan."
Marion Nestle: Yeah. I have a whole collection of food toys. When I was writing about marketing to kids, I wanted to see what this was like, and, "Oh, they're just wonderful." Anybody would want to have them. They're so cute. So, you could understand why if you're not thinking about it. That was partly why I wrote Food Politics, because I wanted people to think about it. Party pooper, I guess. But I thought in writing Food Politics, which is a book about how the food industry gets you to love brands and eat unthinkingly, even if the foods that they're pushing aren't very good for you that one of the ways they do it is by inducing brand loyalty, which they're very, very good at. Coca Cola is an American icon and the iconography is extensive. You can fill museums-- In fact, there are museums devoted. Coca Cola has its own in Atlanta.
Melanie Avalon: Atlanta, my town.
Marion Nestle: Which if you've never been to, I recommend it very highly. It's amazing. And so, you have all these things, people adore them. Eminem has a multi-story store in Times Square in New York. It's packed with people and it's not because they necessarily love Eminem, the iconography is so cute, and they love the association with the brands, cereal brands, drink brands, whatever. Without thinking you're not supposed to think about it. That's successful marketing. That's the hallmark of successful marketing, is that you don't think about it.
Melanie Avalon: Yeah. When you do think about it, if you just step back for a second, because I have thought about this before, and then you talk about it all throughout Food Politics, the idea that Nestle and Coca Cola and all these companies, Mars will support all of these seeming studies and initiatives related to health and fitness. Like, it's very confusing, but it has a purpose to it. Could you talk about that?
Marion Nestle: Yeah. I mean, this is from my book Unsavory Truth, which is about how the food industry funds research amongst other things, but particularly funds research in its own interests. The whole area of funded research is fascinating because the recipients, the researchers who actually do the studies, absolutely believe that the funding has no influence on the way they're conducting the science. And yet there is this extraordinary body of research literature that says that it's enormously influential and that it's influential in ways that are not conscious. This all occurs at an unconscious level. It's really interesting. The way that I was able to show that in a really casual way was I just started posting industry funded studies on my blog site, foodpolitics.com and I would post them five at a time. I did that for a year. Every time I had five industry funded studies, I put them up on my post. At the end of the year, I had 168 studies that I had posted, and 156 of them had results that were favorable to the product in some way, only 12 of them didn't.
That was not a very scientifically performed study in any way because I didn't look for the enormous collection of all Nutrition Studies. I just looked at the ones I had found or ran across. It was what's called a convenient sample. In that sample, it was very clear that they get what they pay for most of the time. Not always, but most of the time they get what they pay for. They get what they paid for not because the scientists are bought. It doesn't work that way. It's much more subtle. It has to do with well, I guess the easiest way to explain it is I get letters all the time from food trade associations saying we've got $50,000 and we're looking for studies that will demonstrate the benefits of our product. Okay. If you want that money, you're going to design a study to show benefits. [laughs] It's really that simple. You'll conduct the study according to excellent scientific principles. Your study was designed to demonstrate something in advance that's not real science, that's marketing science.
Melanie Avalon: Two questions to that when you were looking at all of those studies, because it seems like there're like a few different ways that can materialize. Like one, it could be what you just said where they rigorously design it to get the answer they intend or they could get a different answer, but focus on certain, like in the conclusion, just focus on something specific rather than acknowledge everything.
Marion Nestle: Oh, yeah, that happens all the time. In fact, there're tons of research on industry funding and that research shows that most of the bias that comes in, comes in the way the research question is designed. You design a study to demonstrate benefit, that's a bias. In the second place where the bias shows up is in the interpretation. You get a study that actually doesn't show any difference between one thing and another depending on what you're comparing. You say this product might improve health, you put a positive spin on the interpretation. That happens all the time. I see studies like that all the time.
Melanie Avalon: Did you find that studies often weren't powered to actually make the claims that they concluded?
Marion Nestle: I never even bothered to get into that. I was really interested just in input and outcome. I think you can picture the bias without having to get involved in the level of statistical significance and how the study was designed and all of that kind of thing. There are plenty of people who do that kind of analysis. I could do it too, but I didn't think it was necessary because it was so obvious. It was just so obvious that I just assume when I'm looking at these kinds of things that the study was conducted according to reasonable scientific principles. I don't think you have to be a statistician, although I could do that if I had to, but it just didn't seem necessary in a lot of it. There are other people who do that.
Melanie Avalon: I think one aspect that my audience in particular would be really, really interested in, because I also host The Intermittent Fasting Podcast. We're often talking about the idea that breakfast is the most important meal of the day. What are your thoughts on that?
Marion Nestle: Well, you're talking to the wrong person because I'm not a breakfast eater. I turn out to be a natural intermittent faster without knowing that was what it was. I don't get hungry until around 11 in the morning and I'm usually done eating by 7. So that's intermittent fasting, I mean that's 11 plus 5. It's 16 hours. That's my normal way of doing things. I've done that forever and ever and ever. It's what I'm most comfortable doing. I think you should eat when you're hungry. Most of the evidence on breakfast being the most important meal of the day was funded by breakfast cereal companies. If you go back and look at it and the independently funded studies say, "It really doesn't matter." It's the totality of what you eat over a period of time that matters and one food or one pattern or whatever. I mean, lots and lots of people love to study this kind of thing. I don't think it's very interesting. It's the totality of what you eat that matters.
Melanie Avalon: Like I said, we get that question all the time, and so I have done, like, a deep dive into specifically the studies on breakfast and breakfast skipping. It's shocking the amount of studies that are funded by the breakfast cereal industry.
Marion Nestle: Well. Yeah, because they want to sell breakfast cereal and what better way? And, oh, you have to feel so sorry for the cereal companies because people are eating so many other things now. It used to be everybody was eating breakfast cereals and it's been tough for them. I mean, the big dark secret of the American food supply is that we got too much food by a factor of two. We probably have twice as much food available in the United States food supply as the population needs on average. What that does is make for a very, very, very competitive food industry. They got to sell products in that environment and they use every trick they can think of to get you to buy their product instead of somebody else's and that's the real problem. Eat more in general. I think food industry marketing imperatives are responsible for a great deal of why people eat more than they used to, for which there is an enormous amount of evidence.
Melanie Avalon: Do you talk about the role of I don't remember if it was-- it's probably Unsavory Truth. You talk about the role of food claims and health claims, and how they use those to sell things and how historically you collect cereal boxes or you can see that the trend, the themes on cereal boxes throughout the years about what health claims are being used to promote.
Marion Nestle: Yeah. I have a very large collection of cereal boxes. They're flattened. The cereal still isn't in them. I was given facsimiles of three different Kellogg's breakfast cereals from every single box from the time the cereal was started until 2010, which is when they were given to me. I have not been very good about keeping up on it, but every now and then I keep up. So, you can trace the way health claims flourished. Now, there are very, very few health claims on cereal boxes. They're much less fun than they used to be. I mean, there used to be big immunity banners on Fruit Loops and things like that and they don't have that anymore. Now it's just vitamins and fiber, whole grains, very boring.
Melanie Avalon: The industry using these health claims and catching on the trends and what's popular to sell their products, because now there's like a move towards gluten free and organic. Is that all just the same thing, but with healthy masquerade on top of it or do you think it's doing any good?
Marion Nestle: Yeah. No, health sells. If you can give your product the aura of health, then people will again, you're not supposed to think about this. You're not supposed to go to a supermarket and play analyst. You're just supposed to grab. So, if you see that something has vitamins, vitamins are an enormous, enormous sales technique. Everybody thinks they don't have enough vitamins and everybody thinks that more vitamins is better, which it's not. Most people in America have plenty of vitamins. They don't need any more, but never mind. If you advertise your product as having 100% daily value of whatever the vitamin is, protein is another big one, low sugar, gluten free, no GMOs. That's a good one. Lots and lots and lots of products have no GMOs on them. I mean these are things that signal to consumers that somebody who's making the product has at least thought about health or other kinds of concerns and people buy them. So, boy, if it says vitamins, I'll just get it, particularly if it's for kids. It's a sales technique. It's a way of distinguishing one product from another and just telling signaling you buy this, it's good for you. You don't have to have a guilty conscience.
Melanie Avalon: Speaking of vitamins and going back to your personal story, you had an epiphany moment about nutrition when you realized what actually was determining these dietary recommendations with vitamins and things like that. Could you talk a little bit about that? This blew my mind. I actually already talked about this once I read this when we recorded an episode of The Intermittent Fasting Podcast. I was talking about it, about the studies that you found that went into determining these guidelines.
Marion Nestle: You mean the dietary guidelines.
Melanie Avalon: You went back and looked at the studies about what actually was supporting these recommendations for various vitamins and it was conducted in mental wards.
Marion Nestle: Oh, no. That was actually when I was first teaching nutrition. This is what got me hooked on nutrition. Remember, I came from basic science and in my first class in nutrition, we're back to Brandeis University again, I wanted to start out with the scientific approach to nutrition, so I wanted to see what was required in the human diet. The first thing I found out was that the textbooks of nutrition didn't agree on which nutrients were essential for human health, required for human health that you had to get from food. So, I thought it would be interesting to delve into what the research was behind that. The first studies that I went to look at, was a study of the vitamin thiamine, a B vitamin. And the study was conducted in a mental institution in the south on six young women who were incarcerated in that mental institution. The assay that was used to determine whether they were vitamin deficient or not was their level of cooperation with chores around the hospital. I was kind of stunned I was coming into this from basic science like, "You got to be kidding me." Because one of the symptoms of thiamine deficiency is neurological and mental problems. How are you distinguishing? I mean these women are in a mental institution what's going on here? The next one was even crazier because I picked vitamin C.
The first study I laid my hands on was a study that was done in a prison in one of the midwestern states. During the study in which they put these prisoners on a vitamin C-deficient diet, two of the prisoners escaped, what? This is not a well-controlled clinical trial. "Are you kidding me?" I couldn't believe that these studies were the basis of the recommended dietary allowances, which is the basis of the food recommendations that the dietary guidelines give out. If you eat according to the dietary guidelines, you get all the nutrients you need. I just couldn't believe it. The other thing I thought was, "Oh, what a great way to teach undergraduate biology." Because I had been teaching cell and molecular biology, which is very abstract. You can't see it, you can't taste it, you have to take it on faith. And here every single undergraduate student could take one look at this study and see what was wrong with it. So, I thought it was a terrific way to teach critical thinking in biology and that's what I did.
Melanie Avalon: Since then, I'm assuming they've done a lot more research to support the RDAs.
Marion Nestle: Oh, yeah. I mean, they do the best they can. As I like to explain, nutrition research is extraordinarily intellectually challenging. It's really, really, really hard to do. It's hard to do because people eat very complicated diets. If you look at dietary intake carefully in one individual and between one individual and another, the variation is absolutely overwhelming. The most challenging question in the field of nutrition is how do you tell what somebody's eating? How do you define that? How do you compare it? Really, really, really difficult to do and I don't think anybody should underestimate the difficulty. It's very easy for me and anybody else to make fun of nutrition research. I think nutrition researchers try to do the best they can with what is almost an impossible situation. It also explains why so much nutrition research is focused on single nutrients or single foods. Because it's easier to control a study that has where you're just looking at one food but it doesn't make any sense to look at one food or one nutrient. I mean, all these fights about carbohydrate versus fat, they don't make any sense at all because you're looking at one nutrient in diets of extraordinary complexity.
Melanie Avalon: Yeah. It's easier to focus and then, like you talk about throughout your books, it also provides an easy health claim that they can then use to promote things with the superfoods and blueberries.
Marion Nestle: Oh, yeah. I mean, once you define foods, you reduce foods to nutrients. There's even a term for it. It's called nutritionism. It's when you focus on saturated fat, salt, and sugar rather than the foods that convey those things, then it's very easy for food companies to say, "Oh, you don't like us having this much sugar. We'll take a gram out."
Melanie Avalon: That's also another crazy thing. I can't tell you how many times, especially because there's the whole keto movement now. There're all these keto products on the market. Just last night, it'll be like a keto product. It'll say, "Low sugar or low carb, and then it will literally have sugar on the back." [laughs] I don't understand. The one I was looking at last night, it said corn syrup was like one of the first ingredients and it had an asterisk. The asterisk said, "Not a significant source of sugar or carb."
Marion Nestle: Ooh. Let me tell, I've just found out about this. I don't know how I didn't know this. I'm writing a book chapter about marketing to children and I ran across this product that where the first three ingredients are corn syrup, condensed milk protein, and sugar. Those are the first three ingredients. It's ghastly and it said, "In this product that it had 240 calories, but it only had 15 grams of sugar." I figured there were 100 calories missing somewhere and I couldn't figure it out. Corn syrup is sugar. So, I actually called the company, which is a Nestle company, no relation, and I talked to a nutritionist at Nestle who patiently explained to me that corn syrup is the product of enzymatic digestion of cornstarch into smaller pieces. If those pieces are bigger than three glucose units stuck together, they count as carbohydrate, not sugar.
Melanie Avalon: Wow.
Marion Nestle: I can't believe. I cannot believe that I didn't know that. I'm so glad you asked, because I only found that out this week. What this product said was that it had 41 grams of carbohydrate, which would have been 160 calories altogether, but it only had 15 grams of sugar even though those little teeny pieces of carbohydrate would be quickly digested into glucose. They could say that they only had 15 grams of sugar in 240 calories, when in fact most of it was sugar. It just wasn't sugar very quickly. It had to be digested first, which wouldn't take very long, you do it in the mouth. When you see corn syrup or glucose syrup, either one, those will have glucose, which is a sugar plus little pieces that count as carbohydrate.
Melanie Avalon: Oh, my goodness. Yeah. I was so confused because that's crazy, I was confused because the product you were looking at, the product I was looking at, corn syrup was, I think, the first ingredient. I was like, "How can it be the first ingredient."
Marion Nestle: When there's hardly any sugar in it? That's how because it counts as carbohydrate, not sugar. So, I thought that was well worth knowing. I was very amused and I thought the Nestle nutritionist was really nice to tell me. I then looked up corn syrup and thought and saw right away. Of course, these are little chains of glucose and they don't count as sugar because they're bigger than two.
Melanie Avalon: Are there any other ones like that of like loopholes?
Marion Nestle: I think there are lots of them. I mean always when you see the sugars split like that. So, corn syrup, something else, and sugar, if they put all the sugars together, the sugar would always be the first ingredient by a lot and so that happens a lot. They use different kinds of sugars. I guess the other one is these fruit purees. Fruit purees are not fruit. [chuckles] They may have been fruit at one time, but they're far beyond fruit. I mean, they're basically sugar isolated from fruit. That's another way of getting a lot of sugar in without calling it sugar.
Melanie Avalon: I think also the rules around the minimum amounts of things, how you don't have to list it or quantify it if it's below a certain amount. They'll just adjust the serving size to make-- They'll make it so that with the serving size, they can get these lower amounts of things and not really count them in the serving size.
Marion Nestle: Yeah. I mean the new serving sizes make that more difficult. They were changed a few years ago. It makes that more difficult. Food companies hire people to try to make their products look good on food labels. Most people don't read food labels very carefully, don't understand them. There's a very good reason why they don't understand them. They're not very easy to understand. The way I like to explain it is that when the food label was being-- the nutrition facts panel was being designed, the FDA did focus group testing on several different designs and nobody understood any of them. They picked the one that was least poorly understood, but nobody understood any of them. I mean, they're really hard-- you have to know a lot to understand the food label. Most people just look at calories and sugar which isn't a bad place to start.
Melanie Avalon: I'm really surprised or impressed that that Nestle woman told you that whole thing, because I remember one time-- because I do read food labels very intensely. I emailed a company one time, it was a horseradish sauce, and it had natural flavor in it. I emailed them twice from two different emails and asked them what was the natural flavor, and I got two completely different answers. I was like, "Okay, they have no idea what's in that."
Marion Nestle: No, you can look at what the FDA allows. I mean, I always start with what the FDA allows on food labels. Natural flavor has a very specific meaning. It's just that you think of natural flavor as something that comes from a food or a fruit or vegetable, or whatever. It does originally, but it's mixed in with so many other things. All of them originally from fruits or vegetables, that they're very complicated natural flavors. They're very, very complicated. I mean, that to me, is why, even though there are 20 different varieties of fizzy drinks, these fizzy waters that everybody is making now, 20 different fruit flavors, they all taste the same to me. They have fruit flavors in them even though they're listed as different fruits. It's this natural flavor stuff. I think it smooths things out and makes everything taste like bubble gum.
Melanie Avalon: It's so funny. Like they say, "Everything tastes like chicken." Everything tastes like bubble gum.
Marion Nestle: Exactly. These flavors all taste like bubble gum.
Melanie Avalon: Something I've been fascinated by as far as, like, labels and regulations. I'm really fascinated that the FDA actually did ban trans fats.
Marion Nestle: They didn't ban. They just said that they had to be listed on the food label.
Melanie Avalon: Oh, I thought they are banned and had to be removed.
Marion Nestle: Um-mm. They just listed they have to be listed on the food label because they are demonstrably not good for health. Nobody would want them on their food label because then you could be sued for putting in a demonstrably unsafe ingredient. The FDA didn't have to do anything except say, "You have to label it." And the companies, they disappeared instantly. They had plenty of warning that was coming for years. Yeah, the FDA is kind of limited in what it can do, but there are some things it can do and that was an obvious one.
Melanie Avalon: If you had unlimited resources and you could actually create any study, what would you study? Like a clinical study?
Marion Nestle: A clinical study? I think we know a lot about nutrition. I can't think of any really big picture questions. I mean, the big one right now, the really big one is why do ultra-processed foods make people eat more? That is the really big question right now. It's being studied at NIH under very well controlled conditions and I think eventually they'll find out. I mean, that's the most important advance in nutrition that I can think of in decades, is the concept of ultra-processed foods. The study at NIH that demonstrated that people who eat diets based on ultra-processed foods eat 500 calories a day more on average, than they do when they're eating foods that are less processed. That's just an enormous finding with a very obvious corollary about what to do. Don't eat ultra-processed foods. Figure out what they are and don't eat them or at least don't eat very much of them.
These are foods that are industrially produced, don't look anything like the foods from which they were derived. Can't be made in home kitchens because you don't have the equipment or the ingredients. The easiest example is corn on the cob is unprocessed, canned corn is lightly processed, Doritos are ultra processed. They don't look anything like corn. Once you sort of get that idea and you know that the food companies that make these foods have designed them deliberately to be irresistible. You can't eat just one, then if you want to protect yourself from overeating, you avoid those foods or you make sure they come in small packages or you do whatever-- What you don't do is sit yourself down in front of a big bag of them.
Melanie Avalon: Yeah. Do you know Mark Schatzker? He wrote The Dorito Effect.
Marion Nestle: I know the book.
Melanie Avalon: Okay. Yeah. In his new book, The End of Craving. I don't know if you've read his newest book.
Marion Nestle: I haven't seen that.
Melanie Avalon: Oh. It's been one of my most popular episodes and it blew my mind. He's amazing. I actually just got him to sign-- He wrote a book called Steak too. I got him to sign a copy for one of my friends. He has a theory that the processed food issue and he talks all about the natural flavors and all that, but he thinks a large part of it is due to the fortification. That actually the vitamins, the added vitamins make us overeat. And he has studies that support it. It's fascinating.
Marion Nestle: I would guess that something else is involved. Vitamins don't taste good. If you've got vitamin-fortified something, you've got to do something else to cover that up. You have to cover it up with sugar, you have to cover it up with flavor additives of one kind or another. Put a vitamin pill in a glass of water, dissolve it, and try to drink it, ugh, doesn't taste good. He could be right. That fortification has a big effect. If you want extra vitamins, take a one-a-day supplement. They're harmless. I don't think everything needs to be formulated, but it sure sells food products.
Melanie Avalon: Well. He talks about it's a lot of animal studies, but how adding vitamins to livestock feed makes them gain weight.
Marion Nestle: Oh, really?
Melanie Avalon: He also talks about this is mind blowing. They've done studies where beverages that were like a certain sweetness through artificial sweeteners, but they were different calorie numbers. They would give participants different drinks that were either calorie matched, so they tasted like the amount of calories that were in them sweetness wise, or they were, like, less calories or they were more calories. And what was crazy is when the participants drank drinks that had less calories than it tasted like, so they were basically more artificially sweetened. Their metabolism just stopped. Basically, the response--
Marion Nestle: They got confused.
Melanie Avalon: Yeah. Theory is, like, we're having these low-calorie processed foods that are using artificial sweeteners, but then our body is like, "Whoa." And it gets confused. It goes into storage mode because it enters an uncertainty principle. It's really cool. I was like, "I had never heard that before."
Marion Nestle: Well. That's interesting. There's more and more evidence coming out that artificial sweeteners are probably not good for you. We'll have to see how that goes.
Melanie Avalon: Well. This has been absolutely amazing. The last question that I ask every single guest on this show and it's just because I realize more and more each day how important mindset is. What is something that you're grateful for?
Marion Nestle: Oh, the students I teach. One of the things that's wonderful about being a university professor is you get to deal with young people, and the ones I deal with are interested in food. They want to use food to change the world for the better and I just think it's such a privilege to get to cheer them on.
Melanie Avalon: Awesome. Well, thank you so much, Marion, for your work. This has been absolutely incredible. I'm just so grateful for everything that you're doing. Like, you're literally changing the world and your books have done that. So, I look forward to all of your future books. Thank you so much.
Marion Nestle: Well, thanks. This is really a fun conversation and I'm so glad we got to do it.
Melanie Avalon: Awesome. Thank you. Have a good rest of your day.
Marion Nestle: Okay.
Melanie Avalon: Bye.
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