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New Nutrition Book Choking on Bad Science

The food industry laughs all the way to the bank as it manipulates the system to make us fat and unhealthy.

That's Marion Nestle's junk science-fueled message in her new book, Food Politics: How the Food Industry Influences Nutrition and Health.

Nestle, who portrays herself as an above-the-fray professor of nutrition at New York University, spends more than 400 pages accusing the food industry of "influencing" the government, "co-opting" nutrition professionals, "exploiting" children, and "corrupting" schools — all in the name of profit.

The book won't be in stores until March, but the marketing campaign already has started with predictably superficial and uncritical reviews in The New York Times and USA Today.

Despite its length, the book was a quick read; it disintegrated from a scientific perspective on pages 7 and 8. Those two pages are where Nestle tries to establish the American diet as a health problem — the necessary foundation for the rest of the book.

"The combination of poor diet, sedentary lifestyle and excessive alcohol consumption contributes to about 400,000 of the two million or so annual deaths in the U.S. about the same number and proportion affected by cigarette smoking," writes Nestle.

This assertion extends the discredited claim that obesity kills 300,000 annually.

As the New England Journal of Medicine recently editorialized: "The data linking overweight and death ... are limited, fragmentary, and often ambiguous. Most of the evidence is either indirect or derived from [studies with] serious methodologic flaws. Many studies fail to consider confounding variables, which are extremely difficult to assess and control — Thus, although some claim that every year 300,000 deaths — are caused by obesity, that figure is by no means well established."

If you make it to page 380 in the Appendix you might discover Nestle's subtle acknowledgement of this criticism. But how many readers, much less media reviewers, will last that long and then decode her doublespeak?

Nestle parrots government claims that rates of overweight and obese children and adults are skyrocketing.

But these claims are based on dubious research (telephone surveys without any data verification) and an arbitrary definition of "overweight" based on "body mass index." The BMI, a ratio of weight to height, is problematic because it does not consider body type or state of health.

Nestle writes, "Some authorities believe that just a one percent reduction in intake of saturated fat across the country would prevent more than 30,000 cases of coronary heart disease annually and save more than a billion dollars in health care costs."

Despite the folklore developed over the last 30 years, the role of saturated fat in heart disease risk remains uncertain. A recent Harvard University study of more than 80,000 women, for example, reported no statistical association between saturated fat intake and heart disease. If the folklore were true, such a large study would likely have verified it.

Nestle doesn't seem to want readers to get bogged down in the facts about diet and health, especially since they would detract from her exposé of the allegedly tobacco-like food industry.

What really needs to be exposed, though, is Nestle's own concealed bias.

Nestle derides the American Council on Science and Health, a nonprofit group that frequently comments on food issues, for not disclosing the extent to which the ACSH is funded by the food companies.

She adds, "... but ACSH's nemesis, the Washington, D.C.-based consumer advocacy group the Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI), has noted such connections since 1982 ..." This is only one of her numerous references to the "heroic" CSPI, the hyper-activist group best known for labeling Fettuccine Alfredo as "heart attack on a plate," and its nutritional lynching of Chinese food and movie popcorn.

But while chastising ACSH for lack of disclosure, Nestle hypocritically omitted disclosing her close and long-time connection with CSPI — like her five-year stint as a CSPI board member.

This deception isn't new.

Nestle and CSPI are often presented as mutually supporting, independent sources in media reports on food controversies. Mention of the Nestle-CSPI relationship is usually omitted from this coverage.

Nestle is even presented as an independent source in articles about CSPI campaigns, such as those against Coca-Cola's sponsorship of the Harry Potter movie and Procter and Gamble's fat substitute olestra.

Finally, Nestle is simply biased against the food industry.

She told The New York Times in 1996: "I like it better when CSPI takes on the big corporations like McDonald's. I like it less well when CSPI takes on mom-and-pop outfits like Chinese restaurants."

Food Politics deftly glosses over and misrepresents the science on diet and health, and Nestle's personal bias. Pardon me if I'm a little skeptical of the rest of her hatchet job on the food industry.

Steven Milloy is the publisher of JunkScience.com, an adjunct scholar at the Cato Institute and the author of Junk Science Judo: Self-defense Against Health Scares and Scams (Cato Institute, 2001).

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