Times Relies on Food Police for Comment on Healthier Products

Times Relies on Food Police for Comment on Healthier Products
In mostly positive free-market story, anti-industry nutritionist Marion Nestle continues criticism of innovation.

By Dan Gainor
August 11, 2005

     According to the Aug. 11 New York Times, scientists are working To Banish Fat In Tasty Ways. Now, if they could only figure out a way to do the same to the food police.

     The 1,800-word article was generally a celebration of the free market, a positive sign of the Times. Reporter Melanie Warner went into great detail showing companies developing foods that let consumers have their cake and eat it, too. Warner described the effort as a little-understood part of the $550 billion processed-food industry.

     Unfortunately, the first person Warner turned to for comment was Marion Nestle, a professor of nutrition at New York University. Warners treatment implied that Nestle is a neutral observer of the food industry. She isnt. Nestle is both a former advisory board member of the left-wing Center for Science in the Public Interest and a regular anti-food industry commentator. The story didnt label her in a way readers could understand this agenda.

     Warner quoted Nestle criticizing industry plans to insert vitamins and other helpful additives into food: What this does is to turn food into medicine, said Professor Nestle. Omega-3's occur naturally in food like fish, chicken and eggs, and plants to a lesser extent. Why do we need to get it from bread?

     The story followed with an explanation. One reason may be that products that can be marketed as healthier often generate higher sales and fatter profits for food companies. PepsiCo, for instance, reports that sales of its healthier Smart Spot items products like Baked Lay's potato crisps, Tropicana orange juice, Diet Pepsi and Quaker oatmeal are growing at double the pace of other products.

     Warner didnt explain that Nestle is opposed to those as well. In a Sept. 3, 2004, USA Today piece, Nestle made her extreme attitudes clear. Julie Schmit quoted her commenting on then-new PepsiCo Smart Spot products as foods people shouldnt be eating at all.

     There were other important problems in the Times story:

    Capitalism misunderstood: Warner concluded the story with a quote claiming the food industry is reliant on less healthy foods. If Americans stopped eating large quantities of fried chicken, sweetened breakfast cereal, cookies and snack chips, the financial health of many companies would suffer. Warner didnt grasp that food companies will sell American consumers whatever foods they wish to buy. The recent rise and fall of the Atkins diet foods is a prime example of that fact.
    Never satisfied: The Times did a sidebar about General Mills trying to create a healthier alternative to the cereal Alpha-Bits by making the cereal 75 percent whole grains and removing all the sugar. The Times still wasnt satisfied, describing the new product considerably bulkier than before, and the letters that came out of the machine, known as an extruder, looked a bit too chunky to be legible.
    A taste test: The Times went so far as to have dining reporter Julia Moskin compare the new and old Alpha-Bits in a blind taste test. According to Moskin, the reformulated cereal ''tastes like wet cardboard, a lot like stale Cheerios.'' But Moskin didnt like the older version either, calling it sweeter than anything in nature, and with a chemical aftertaste.