Snapple Beware: She’s the Gadfly In the Food Industry’s Soup

“Just when I think I’ve heard everything, I learn that Snapple is buying out our school system,” said New YorkUniversity nutritionist Marion Nestlelast Wednesday, after Mayor Michael Bloomberg announced that he had inked a deal for at least $8 million to make Snapple the official drink of New York City schools. Snapple, she said, somehow did an end-run around the rules prohibiting soft drinks in schools and convinced city officials that their drink was more nutritious than Coke and Pepsi-which is debatable. To those in the nutritional know, even the all-juice version Snapple will be peddling to city kiddies packs as many calories as sugar-spiked Coke and Pepsi. And Ms. Nestle, who is about to step down as chair of the university’s department of nutrition, food studies and public health, pointed out that Snapple’s juice is reconstituted, pasteurized stuff that’s sweeter than anything found in nature, resulting in a drink that’s closer to a dessert than a beverage. “This is the last thing overweight, sedentary kids need to be guzzling,” she said. “Diabetes and obesity are the fastest-growing nutritional health problems kids have, and while sugar, including fruit juice, doesn’t cause these problems, it contributes to the symptoms-especially in large quantities. I’m just appalled by it.”

But arguing whether Snapple is worse or better than fizzy drinks is like debating the cleanliness of the East River versus the Hudson. To your body, they’re basically the same beverage in different containers. It’s the official brand-boosting, Ms. Nestle said, that’s selling kids down the river. “There was a tremendous amount of advocacy that went into getting soft drinks out of the schools, and now this Snapple deal completely undermines it,” Ms. Nestle said. “What’s next? Naming New York public schools after corporations?” Ms. Nestle, whose 2002 book Food Politics railed against the food industry’s pernicious profit-driven influence on Americans’ eating habits, has been battling junk food in schools since 1998, when she helped expose a deal by Coke and Pepsi to pay public schools for the exclusive rights to their cafeteria vending machines.

Pushing 70, the diminutive Ms. Nestle, who looks more than a little like Rhea Perlman, is still the food industry’s worst nightmare. Witness the creepy collection of “toys”-promotional tools from the major food companies-that she was clearing out of her soon-to-be-vacated N.Y.U. corner office on a recent Friday. “Oh, I can’t get rid of these,” she said. They’re keepers for sure, because they prove that even her scariest Orwellian scenarios probably understate things. There’s the Oreo Cookie Counting Book, with the story line of an adorable toddler devouring 10 cookies “until there are none.” There’s also Oreo Barbie, festooned in Oreo-patterned clothes and standing in a swirling sea of creamy white filling, and her counterpart, McDonald’s Barbie, who wears the fast-food giant’s uniform and serves a Happy Meal to little sister Kelly. Then there’s a glass baby bottle with a rubber nipple and a Diet Pepsi logo. “This one really bothers me,” Ms. Nestle said, burying it back in its box. “I’ve been trying to get them to get rid of this for years. They finally told me they did.”

But the path of a gadfly can be a lonely one: Her anti-food-industry positions haven’t exactly endeared her to her colleagues in the nutrition world, either: Many nutritionists work for the corporations Ms. Nestle regularly challenges. And she regularly embarrasses the American Dietetic Association-the organization that represents registered dietitians, including some members of the N.Y.U. faculty-for taking food-industry money.

For the record, none of these are among the reasons Ms. Nestle is stepping down from her N.Y.U. perch, which she’s held for the last 15 years. “A lot of people are angry at Marion,” said her pal Dan Barber, chef and owner of the Blue Hill restaurant in Greenwich Village, who added that her gentle, unassuming presence makes her unflinching ripostes even more surprising. Nutritionists, food-technology companies and corporations would love to have Ms. Nestle, who still dresses like the Berkeley coed she once was, on their side. Instead, she embraces the pet causes of Mario Batali, Alice Waters and Julia Child: She’s pro Slow Food and slow cooking (getting N.Y.U. to build a gleaming kitchen worthy of a Bon Appétit photo shoot is probably her proudest achievement) and congenitally suspicious of edibles wrapped in crinkly packages.

Now she’s gearing up for something much bigger. Her new academic gig-in N.Y.U.’s public-health department-starts in January, and it will give her more free time to pursue her next project: She plans to do for nutrition what Dr. Ruth Westheimer did for sex.

On another recent morning, Ms. Nestle walked from her Washington Place apartment (she took over when Ed Koch moved two blocks uptown) to Otto, Mario Batali’s new Eighth Street pizzeria, for breakfast. She climbed up onto the barstool, ordered a ciabatta roll with truffled honey, took a long draw from her machiatto and began trying to justify her foray into the spotlight. “Everywhere I go, people ask me: ‘What should I eat? How can I lose weight?'” she said. And with both obesity and eating disorders on the rise, they’re clearly not getting answers. Dietitians, she explained, are trained to deal with vitamin deficiencies, not so much the cultural context within which people make food choices. Diet gurus, on the other hand, are usually savvy marketers who lack scientific credibility. Ms. Nestle-who boasts impeccable credentials and a passion for good food-said the book she has in the works, What to Eat , will clear the air. “It’s going to answer every question-‘How can I lose weight?’ ‘Are carbohydrates bad?’ ‘What vitamin should I take?’ ‘Should I try Atkins?’ ‘Is vegetarianism safe?’-that people come up and ask me every single day. It’s going to be the definitive popular book on nutrition.”

Her goal is to get people to share her fervent belief that food-and the so-called diseases of affluence like cancer and heart disease-are not just personal issues, but bona fide social and political problems. And the big, fat problem that no one but she seems to notice at the heart of the nation’s obesity crisis is, as she sees it, a gross oversupply of calories-not consumer demand. The reason is simple: Companies like Kraft and Burger King produce 3,900 calories of processed food daily for every person in the United States. That’s at least a third more calories than most people need. If we were to go on a national diet and not meet our allotted 3,900 calories, food sales-and stock prices-would dip, shareholders would get gloomy and the economy would flag. “In order to stay competitive, the food industry needs people to eat more,” Ms. Nestle said. And so, of course, they do.

“It’s very unusual and courageous for a nutritionist to criticize the food industry,” said Joan Dye Gussow, a professor emeritus of nutrition and education at Columbia University. “Marion’s power was in being uniquely situated: Most of the people that write about what she writes about weren’t in a position to know. And those who know would never write about it.”

And, indeed, the backlash Ms. Nestle started seems to have the food industry panicked into cleaning up its act: McDonald’s is selling a leaner version of its Chicken McNuggets, Frito Lay is mulling an organic version of its snack foods, and Kraft promises to make a less lethal Oreo. But these ersatz reforms won’t do anything about the fact that Americans eat too much. “Healthier junk food is still junk food,” she said. “There’s a real contradiction here. Companies cannot sell as much food as they want and not be part of the problem.”

She is deeply skeptical when the industry sheds its crocodile tears for children-because fat people, at least so far, are good for business. Neither does she give a free ride to the U.S. Department of Agriculture and most major nutrition organizations, which depend on funding from the makers of Oreos, Doritos, Pop-Tarts and Happy Meals. Hence, the gaping fault line she sees undergirding our national nutrition policy: We need to eat less, but government, nutritionists and the food industry keep pushing us to eat more.

But Ms. Nestle has come to feel a new kind of serenity about these problems. She has in her possession two reports by European investment analysts predicting the looming vulnerability and increasing anachronism of the food industry in the face of the obesity backlash. “They just can’t grow anymore,” she said. “This is late-stage 21st-century capitalism. I can’t fix that.”

But she can speed of the demise of the worst offenders. As part of her new role-industry watchdog– cum –nutritional wise woman-the World Health Organization recently flew her to Geneva, business class, to bear witness to a one-day negotiation that officials were having with international food makers. As the nutrition policy was translated into foreign languages, “I just sat there and said nothing,” Ms. Nestle marveled. “I kept asking me what they wanted me to do. Write something? Make a speech? They said no-that just having me in the room was enough to convince the food industry that they were serious.”

There’s no way Ms. Nestle would have mustered the moxie to take this freefall into public-figure-hood if 2003 hadn’t turned into such a banner year for her. She’s getting credit for the recent spate of lawsuits-real and threatened-against fast-food companies; for nearly a decade she’s been comparing them to tobacco companies. Years of lecturing, media appearances and published articles helped her cause. But it was Food Politics , with its exposé of the food industry’s unholy influence on government, schools, and health organizations, which put her on the map, earning her comparisons to Rachel Carson.

Now Ms. Nestle, who last year made 70 public speeches on everything from E. coli in meat to trans fats, wants to lighten up a little. A few weeks ago she jetted down to Google’s Mountain View, Calif., headquarters at the invitation of its founders, Sergey Brin and Larry Page (a corporate shill for no one, Ms. Nestle accepts travel expenses but refuses payment from food companies for speaking or consulting; honorariums go straight into an N.Y.U. scholarship fund). The entrepreneurs had hired nine chefs to create the ultimate college-dorm-style cafeteria, a gastronomic nostalgia trip for its 1,000 mostly Gen-X employees. Then, in July, they ran into Ms. Nestle in Aspen at a Fortune magazine pow-wow for powerbrokers and, bracing for a stern scolding, told her to come on down.

“They should be worried,” Ms. Nestle said. “Everything they’re doing-offering plentiful, free, tasty food, lots of variety, unlimited portions, available at all times-reflects the eating patterns contributing to the obesity crisis in this country.” But after this mini-rant, the woman who landed after Osama bin Laden on Restaurant Business ‘ list of sworn enemies of the American way of eating drops the food-police persona. O.K., she admits, she really didn’t scold Messrs. Page and Brin. She urged them to keep up the good work-and the 24-hour pizza bar. “I can’t change Google’s cafeteria without changing its corporate culture,” which is, she reported, “just so much fun.” Is she worried about them getting fat? “Eh,” she said, with a wave of her hand. “They’re young.” And, presumably, svelte and healthy enough to eat what they please. Will the Snapple generation be so lucky?