Professor Nestle acknowledges that her books present her with an important opportunity to influence public policy. "That was my goal in writing them."
In January 2004 Marion Nestle stepped down as chair of the Department of Nutrition, Food Studies, and Public Health, a position she held since coming to NYU in 1988. She did so because of the tremendous activity generated by her highly influential books on the food industry.
As a result of the intense interest generated by such books as Food Politics: How the Food Industry Influences Nutrition and Health (California, 2002),Nestle lectures extensively and is frequently quoted in newspapers and journals. "The book gave me a platform. It coincided with an epidemic of obesity that is the most important public health problem we have in this county, bar none."
Safe Food: Bacteria, Biotechnology, and Bioterrorism (California, 2003), Nestle's second book, "continues the theme of Food Politics to some extent," says Nestle, "but also describes how the public and scientists differ in the way they look at food hazards." Taking Sides: Clashing Views on Controversial Issues in Nutrition and Food, a book Nestle edited with Professor Beth Dixon, is designed to teach critical thinking to undergraduates.
Her latest book, What to Eat (Farrar Straus Giroux, 2006), won the 2007 James Beard Foundation award for best reference book. Designed for the general public, it addresses common questions about nutrition like "How can I lose weight? Are carbohydrates bad? Should I go on the Atkins' diet? What vitamins should I take?" - questions that Nestle gets asked every day.
Professor Nestle acknowledges that her books present her with an important opportunity to influence public policy. "That was my goal in writing them." After the publication of Food Politics, publications like the Wall Street Journal, Fortune, Business Week expressed tremendous interest in its ideas. British investment analysts at JP Morgan and USB Warburg used the book as a basis for alerting food companies of the need to change their business practices if people start eating less junk food. Lawyers have cited the book in class action lawsuits against food companies.
Nestle, demurs from taking credit for an international climate that is ever more critical of the food industry. She admits, however, that Food Politics “helped generate more conversation about societal responsibility for creating an environment in which people overeat."
Nestle notes that she has "a position of independence that is quite rare in this field. Because I have tenure, I can say what I think without fear of losing my job. And because of the kind of research I do, I don't need federal or private grants to survive. And because I've been on federal committees, I have had first hand experience of how the system works. I understand that my position is privileged and unique, that's why I feel responsible for doing this kind of work.."
Nestle came to nutrition in a roundabout way. After receiving a PhD in molecular biology from the University of California, Berkeley, she taught at Brandeis University. "I was given a nutrition course to teach - and I liked it."
She continued to teach nutrition, earned an MPH in Public Health Nutrition from Berkeley, and then moved to Washington D.C. as Senior Nutrition Policy Advisor in the US Department of Health and Human Services. Her primary responsibility was as managing editor of the 1988 Surgeon General's Report on Nutrition and Health, a landmark review of research linking diet to prevention of heart disease, cancer, and other chronic diseases. Says Nestle, "I was constantly at odds with the administration that hired me over issues of scientific integrity. That's when I decided to come to NYU."
Nestle will continue her professorial work and is looking forward to the opportunity to do more teaching as well as to her new appointment as Director of Public Health Initiatives. "Everyone is excited about our new MPH program in community public health. We hope that it will bring nutrition, food studies, and public health together in an integrated way that will be interesting and useful to students."