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NYU's Nestle On The Influence Of Consumers In Food Industry

Omar Bariffi/

“Consumer Reports published a national survey this summer which found that nearly 60 percent of consumers check labels to see if what they are buying is natural. Even though there’s no agreed upon definition for what “natural” actually means. So now Consumers Union, the magazine’s advocacy arm, is gathering signatures online to petition the FDA to get rid of the word “natural” from food labeling. It’s just one example of how activists are changing what we eat, and what we know about what we eat. Marion Nestle has been following the twists and the turns of the food industry for years from her perch as professor of food studies and public health at New York University,” says host Barbara Lewis

How much influence the big players in the food industry hold over what they put in their products

“They have to put in their products what they’re allowed to put in their products. They must label their products according to FDA rules. They own lots of products in the supermarkets, and have enormous distributions, and make billions of dollars a year.”

How well positioned the FDA is to remove ingredients from food and beverages

“The FDA has the authority to remove products from food supply that are demonstrably unsafe. Proving that something is demonstrably unsafe is not particularly easy, and the FDA doesn’t have a huge staff or a huge amount of money to do the work that it does, but by and large, it depends on large companies following the rules, and mostly they do.”

Her take on activists who turn to and social media to put pressure on large companies

“How else would they do it, is my question. There really is no other consumer voice that can put pressure on companies that are doing things that consumers don’t like very much.”

The targeted ingredients

“Many of these substances have not been tested. Some of them have been, but either got by or were assumed to be safe by the FDA. And it seems to me this is part of a movement to having foods have fewer additives and fewer chemical substances added to them. And it seems to me in the long run, this is a good idea."

Is the bigger picture that food companies need to be more careful?

“I think [food companies] they need to be more careful, and they need to be more transparent about what they’re doing, and be willing to work with the public about some of these things…. The dyes and the flavors that are added to foods are there for cosmetic purposes. They are there to make the food taste palatable. Because otherwise, they are so highly processed that they wouldn’t be.”