mail.jpegEvery time you pick up food, your choices are influenced by what you know — or at least, by what you think you know.

And by the politics, lobbying, money, advertising, regulations or lack thereof, and industry interests — all stretched across a range of competing agencies — which are carefully crafted to catch the public eye. What you’ve gleaned from media reports? May have been influenced by the self-same moneyed industry and lobbying interests with a bottom line interest in their frequent blast-faxes off to newsrooms across the country.

All of this to say: what you think you know may not really be the whole truth.

And you ate it for breakfast this morning.

Enter Marion Nestle and her incisive, witty and imminently useful What To Eat to plow through the marketing ploys and political catfights. Marion, whose background is in molecular biology and nutrition, teaches at NYU and blogs regularly at Food Politics.

Her writing on food and nutrition has been lauded for years, and her prior books Food Politics and Safe Food are excellent reads for anyone who wants a better understanding of the intersection of politics, profits and pathogens.

But the thing that makes What To Eat most useful? Marion walks through the food confusion in lay terms, with more than a little snark. And where things are crafted deliberately to obfuscate? Marion says so in plain language.

Consider what should make things easier for all of us — the nutrition label:

If you do not know quite what to make of the Nutrition Label, join the crowd. The label is so difficult to interpret that the FDA publishes a guide to using it — one that is ten pages long, elaborately color coded, and full of rules and examples….

You want to know what is in those foods, but food companies are afraid that you will then classify their products as good or bad and reject the "bad" ones. So the Nutrition Facts label tells you what Congress said it had to, as interpreted by the FDA, under pressure from vested interests.

Which is pretty much the story behind the attempts at watering down any number of issues meant initially to inform or protect the public, but then become so much industry lobbyist drivel. Such as multiple attempts to weaken organic rules. Or why the USDA’s primary mission to promote US agriculture makes it a bad agency for crafting dietary guidelines telling the American public to eat less meat (hint: it doesn’t).

Why labels on fish for mercury risks for pregnant women and small children took years to become reality — and still aren’t done. And why the competing interests of alphabet soup agencies can’t reconcile regulating food safety and promoting the very foods they are regulating: EPA, FDA, USDA, NIH…the list is endless.

In the meantime, how are you supposed to eat safely?

Very carefully. Educating yourself has become a minefield of politicized research, industry-sponsored but not clearly labeled as such studies, lobbying PR reportage, and rules and regs which simply are not followed. The recent peanut products scare is the latest in a long line of Exhibit As, including the pet food scares a few years back. (Marion has written about those as well in Pet Food Politics: The Chihuahua in the Coal Mine.)

Hell, how the products get on the supermarket shelves at all is an issue fraught with moneyed peril and marketing research out the wazoo:

…supermarkets want to expose you to the largest possible number of items that you can stand to see, without annoying you so much that you run from the store. This strategy is based on research proving that "the rate of exposure is directly related to the rate of sale of merchandise." In other words, the more you see, the more you buy….

But store profitability is not just a matter of the price charged for a product compared to its costs. Stores also collect revenue by "renting" real estate to the companies whose products they sell. Product placement depends on a system of "incentives" that sometimes sound suspiciously like bribes. Food companies pay supermarkets "slotting fees" for the shelf space they occupy.

Wonder no more why candy bars are at every cash register everywhere you go.

With all this confusion, where is a sane person going to turn for some real world answers? What To Eat is a fantastic place to start. And I’m thrilled to welcome Marion Nestle to FDL to talk with us about her wonderful book and excellent work today.

(As with all guests, please stay on-topic and be polite — take off-topic discussion to the prior thread. Thanks!)